Interns on the front line

04 Dec, 2020
Alex Mackenzie and Ayaka Archer
Alex Mackenzie and Ayaka Archer

When borders were closing, thousands of Kiwis needed help getting home from North America and New Zealand’s trade relationships became even more important than ever. Trade Commissioner and Consul-General Matt Ritchie was pleased to have not one, but two AUT alumni in his Vancouver team when the pandemic hit.

New Zealand Trade and Enterprise in Vancouver is a partner of the University’s global internship scholarship programme, AUT Internz. Matt says the programme, which gives NZTE access to top quality graduates, has been excellent.

He has been particularly grateful to have two graduates in his small team since the pandemic arrived.

Bachelor of Communication Studies alumna Ayaka Archer joined as an intern in 2019 then was offered a permanent role, making room for the next AUT intern Bachelor of Business graduate Alex Mackenzie, whose arrival was timed only weeks before that of Covid-19.

As part of the office’s pandemic response, a new role – consular officer – was added to Ayaka’s job title and she became a critical support for many stranded Kiwis in British Columbia.

“The amount we’ve had to deal with – flights were cancelled and there were just so many issues – it was unprecedented in consular history,” says Matt.

In a normal year, the Vancouver NZTE office would provide assistance to a handful of cases – maybe a ski accident or two in winter and a mountain bike accident in summer. By March it was supporting 60 or 70 people a day. “There were days where we fielded literally hundreds of calls.”

As well, keeping the wheels of trade in motion when transport lines were severely affected and the usual networking and relationship building opportunities were stymied was another challenge, yet critical responsibility, for the office. Trade in markets like North America are critical to the New Zealand economy.

Against the backdrop of the personal stress of the pandemic, both Ayaka and Alex had some difficult decisions to make about whether to return home themselves. Both decided to stay, where their skills have been put to use supporting Kiwis, personally and economically.

Part of the North America research team, Alex has been providing invaluable support for Kiwi businesses to enter into, expand or simply survive in the Canada and US markets at a time when Canada in particular is becoming an attractive trade partner.  She took a role that Matt says would ordinarily be filled by someone working in Washington DC or LA, “but because we were all working from home, it didn’t matter.

“She’s been helping with desk research for these companies that are either interested in the market or are already here, but may be struggling because of the pandemic. We’ve had a large influx of work due to New Zealand businesses not being able to travel, supporting customers in how they actually transact the business, finding what are the other channels to market if your current channel is closed down or slowed right down – so digital commerce is the big thing at the moment.”

The third major issue for the office was supporting the movement of important equipment like PPE and devices when passenger flights were no longer carrying it. Matt says Fisher and Paykel, for example needed support to get important medical technology to hospitals there.

Ayaka, with her communication studies background, seemed to be the right person in the right place at the right time to help Kiwis with consular assistance.

“The amount of issues we had to deal with just exponentially increased and Ayaka has done an amazing job helping out with that,” Matt says.

Ayaka says that, as a Consular Officer her role is to assist New Zealanders overseas who are in a crisis, “Last March, that was pretty much everyone! I was speaking with hundreds of people per week who were upset, distressed and unsure of what the future held.

“Both the volume and value of the calls were quite intense, with some people asking for advice on whether to uplift and move their entire family and life back to New Zealand. Because of how rapidly things were changing there was so much new information coming through about everything from border restrictions, to repatriation flights, to isolation requirements. It was quite draining and sometimes overwhelming as everyone’s situation was so different and there was no easy answer.”

Like Alex, Ayaka chose to stay in Vancouver as she felt her time in Canada wasn’t up. "The silver lining has been that I’ve become pretty good at having hard conversations and thinking on my feet. It’s also brought me closer to my other Consular Office colleague as we both found that talking things through with someone else on the front-line was what got us through.”

Matt says he’s relied heavily on Ayaka’s marketing and communication skills.

“You need to be able to listen to people's issues without judgement. She’s a great listener and has amazing communication skills, both written and verbal. You've got to give very clear messages, so people don't misinterpret anything.”

“We needed to post information on our Facebook and LinkedIn accounts and the website to make sure that people were getting the right information at the right time.

AUT’s Director of Development, Rebecca Lowery, who oversees the global internship programme behind Alex and Ayaka, remained in touch with the 30 other 2019 graduates who departed for internships in New York, LA, Chicago, Washington DC, San Francisco, London and Singapore early in the year.

“Each graduate made their own decision about whether they would return to New Zealand when borders were closing, or, if an option, stay and see out their internship. While many returned and that was clearly the right decision for them, a handful did stay to see out their internships with their hosts and they’ve been well supported.

“Whether they returned or chose to stay, the resilience and positivity we’ve seen in all the graduates who received 2020 scholarships to intern overseas has been incredible – everyone here is so proud of them.”

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