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How My Semester in New Zealand Renewed My Passion for Environmentalism

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As a child, I loved spending time outdoors, this was where I was and still am happiest. Growing up in Hawai’i, I was constantly surrounded by nature; it was impossible for me to not fall in love with it.

I would spend every weekend hiking up mountain peaks, finding remote beaches, or sailing on the ocean. Nature was such an integral part of my life.

The thought of losing these places sparked my motivation to conserve them: I wanted my children and my children’s children to have the same relationship with nature as I did, and therefore I decided to devote my life to protecting these areas.

When I moved to New Haven to study Environmental Science at Yale University, I learned about environmental best practices, environmental history and law, current problems facing our nation.

However, most of my classes focused on the United States in particular and didn’t talk about Environmental Management, which is what I am most interested in. Studying abroad at the University of Otago in New Zealand helped me to regain my excitement about my studies, gave me an international perspective, and opened my eyes to local solutions.

After spending three years living in the city of New Haven, it was incredible to live in a place with so much nature nearby. Just minutes from campus were a bird sanctuary, beautiful hikes through cloud forests, caves to discover, and great beaches for surfing.

Many of the “Great Walks” of New Zealand were in driving distance, along with Aoraki (the highest peak of New Zealand), and Milford sound. Each weekend, I would pick a new landscape to explore with my friends.

All of these new experiences in nature allowed me to take a step back and remember why I was studying Environmental Studies. New Zealand’s landscapes refocused me and sparked my passion once more, something that I had been starting to lose while away from my home in Hawai’i. 

One of the reasons I chose to study in New Zealand was because of their revolutionary environmental policies and general sense of stewardship towards their land. While abroad, I took a class called Resource Evaluation and Planning.

I learned that New Zealand was one of the first globally to adapt a nationwide and integrated framework for environmental management when they passed the Resource Management Act in 1991. 

From looking at the history of environmentalism in New Zealand, I discovered both the similarities and the differences between environmental policies across the globe.  Students from New Zealand, affectionately called ‘Kiwis’, seemed to be more in touch with nature than my friends from the United States.

It seemed like most Kiwis regularly spent time in nature- whether it was trail running, biking, surfing, or sailing. They seemed aware of environmental problems, perhaps due to their increased time in nature or the island culture.

Finally, I learned the importance of local solutions that are unique to each location. Environmental problems often don’t have a one-size fit all solution- a policy that works well in one location might be a disaster in another.

In New Zealand, they stress the importance of local, indigenous knowledge, which is similar to Hawai’i. In class, it is easy to decide on the best solutions, however, my time in New Zealand made me realize that it is not always that simple.

A great example of a place based environmental solution was the conservation of a Little Blue Penguin colony about thirty minutes away from the University of Otago. At dusk every night, the penguins swim to shore in groups of up to a hundred- it is a truly spectacular sight.

The Royal Albatross Center decided to build a small viewing platform above where the penguins come out of the water. This solution provides a safe nesting place for the penguins, as it is protected from predators, as well as economic revenue to ensure their future protection.

An educational center nearby gives further details about the Little Blue Penguins to spread awareness about these amazing animals. In other locations and with other species, building a platform could have caused the animals harm, but with careful planning, knowledge specific to this colony and advanced building techniques the penguins thrived.

Coming back from my semester abroad, I felt energized, excited, and more knowledgeable. I learned how broad the field of Environmental Studies is.

It incorporates so many different disciplines including science, policy, history, economics, etc. Environmental problems are extremely difficult to tackle, but with everything I learned in New Zealand, I feel much more ready to take them on.

Claire Rossi de Leon is an Environmental Studies student at Yale University and studied abroad with IFSA at University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand in Spring 2018.