When New Zealand put in border restrictions in early 2020, many of our international students were stuck overseas unable to return to the country to start the new academic year.
Bringing our international students back to AUT in the middle of a global pandemic has not been without its challenges, for students and staff alike.
In October 2020, when the government announced a border exception for 250 international PhD and postgraduate students across the tertiary sector, AUT jumped at the opportunity to bring back some of our students. Out of the 23 places allocated to AUT, we're pleased to announce 15 have returned and three are still actively in the process.
In March this year, the government announced a further exception for 1000 students of which AUT was allocated 155 places, with these numbers based on our 2019 intake.
Due to the high numbers and the coordination that would be required, Student Services and Administration and International formed a taskforce to manage the return of these students. The taskforce brought together experts from admissions, student experience, communications, pastoral care and the International team. This team ensured students were regularly advised of any changes to processes, including updates to visa requirements, pre-departure COVID-19 testing and vaccination certificates.
As of early November, the taskforce has supported the return of 101 students from this quota, with a further 12 due to arrive in January 2022.
For our returning students, it's taken determination and courage. New immigration documentation requirements, additional expenses, finding flights when they are scarce, and the unknown experience of 14 days alone in managed isolation are just a few of the challenges faced by our students.
For AUT staff it has involved in-depth one-on-one support, fast turnaround of communications, grappling with very strict entry criteria and a rapid stand up of a new case management process to document the multiple stages of each student's return journey.
Damithri Jayasekara from Sri Lanka is a Doctor of Philosophy candidate in the area of disaster risk management and development. She had just received her visa to travel to New Zealand in March 2020 when New Zealand's borders closed the very next day. She says she was given a remarkable amount of support from AUT when borders first closed, all the way until she arrived back in New Zealand in March this year. "While I was offshore, my supervisors arranged meetings once every two weeks to support me with my studies. The administration staff were also in regular contact with me and helped guide me towards getting back to New Zealand."
Not only have our staff been working incredibly hard to facilitate the students' return to New Zealand, they have also been going above and beyond to make sure students felt connected while they were overseas and after they arrive in New Zealand.
Student Hub Practice Manager - International, Elberta Chan, explains the support students receive once they arrive in the country. "On arrival in MIQ our students hear from our pastoral care team to check in on their wellbeing and needs. For instance, they may be needing assistance with accommodation or transport after they exit MIQ. During their stay they may also be feeling some anxiety about what it will be like once they leave managed isolation, so we try our best to make sure they feel as comfortable and informed as possible."
Returning student, Alexander Cordt from Germany, says he had a great experience in MIQ and really appreciated the support AUT offered. "I really enjoyed managed isolation, because it was a good time to wind down and get some time to yourself. It was great to have the English classes which were initiated by AUT's International House to connect with people who were in the same situation as I was, people who were in MIQ at different hotels all around NZ. It was super great to meet and talk to them."
Hear more from our returning students below:
In October this year the government announced border exceptions for a third cohort for 2022. Although a relatively small number with just 240 places to be shared amongst all New Zealand universities, due to AUT's strong performance in our 2019 intake, we will be receiving one of the largest allocations. Students from this cohort will be able to return after February 2022 and it is expected most will be returning in time for Semester 2.
Offshore Entry Taskforce team lead and Director of AUT International, Meredith Smart, says she looks forward to seeing the return of many more students next year. "We expect increased numbers of international students to be able to return in the future hopefully by midway through 2022 when border restrictions and changes to MIQ will benefit everyone as we work towards higher vaccination rates for the safety of our students and community."