Mia follows in her father’s footsteps as an international student
Mia Birkenfeld and her dad Gero exemplify the long-term connections built through international education.
Gero came to New Zealand from Germany as a teenage exchange student in 1989, staying in Gisborne and attending Campion College Te Kareti o Kapiana. His experience left such an impression on him that he has been sharing stories and photos with his family ever since.
Now his daughter Mia, 15, has followed in his footsteps. She arrived in July from Moers in western Germany, to spend the rest of the school year in Year 10 at Wellington Girls’ College Te Kāreti Kōtiro o te Whanganui-a-Tara. She’ll spend Christmas in New Zealand and return home in January.
Such is the bond which Gero formed with his homestay family that Mia was met in Auckland by his former host parents, and she is now staying with his host sister and her husband in Wellington and attending school with their daughter. “Jessie is the same age as me. We wrote letters to each other and then started texting two or three years ago. She is in my class at school, which is fantastic.”
“I always wanted to come to New Zealand because I saw pictures from my Dad’s stay,” Mia says. “He had such a good experience. He liked that the people were friendly and open-minded, and it was easy to get involved. He enjoyed meeting new people and trying new sports.”
Mia’s English is fluent as she has been learning the language since the age of five, but she says she and her Dad both wanted to improve their language skills even further through their student exchanges.
“It’s been quite easy here because everyone wants to help you, and the accent isn’t as difficult as I thought it would be!”
Making friends, building connections
Like any international student, Mia is adjusting to change. “The school is quite different because it is girls-only and my school in Germany is mixed. It also starts and finishes later. In Germany school finishes at 1.15pm and we go home for lunch,” she says. “It’s good here because you have more time to catch up with all your friends.
“It’s really modern too, as we are working with laptops and other technologies. In Germany teachers use a board and we write notes into our books. I think it’s so beneficial to be using technology in class and I really enjoy it.”
Mia has a clear understanding of what she would like to gain from her exchange in New Zealand. “I want to learn about the different culture here and to increase my knowledge, but I also want to make new friends and build connections.
“This exchange is absolutely making me a more confident person and I know it will be so helpful later in life.”
But she says the New Zealand students also benefit from the presence of exchange students like her. “They learn more about different cultures in other parts of the world. Everyone gains a better understanding of each other. And the better you understand other people’s ethnic and cultural background, the easier it is to get along with them.”
Excitement at return of international students
It is a sentiment echoed by Maria Walker, WGC Director of International Students, who says students and staff at the school are excited to be welcoming new international students from many different countries once again.
“But we also want to acknowledge the international students who have contributed so amazingly to the school over the past three years, as prefects, student committee members, award-winners, and organisers of events which showcase their cultures. The joining together of our international and domestic students makes all of them global citizens.”
Mia isn’t exactly sure yet what career path she’ll take when she’s older, but she knows she wants to put her international education experience to good use.
“I want to see as much of the world as possible and get to know more people and cultures. I would love to one day pass on my experience and help people, perhaps through volunteer work. Or maybe I’ll work as a human rights lawyer, trying to ensure everyone is treated with respect and can live a happy life.”