More Than Just a Beautiful Place, By Megan Sullivan, Biological Engineering major, Biomedical Engineering minor


Posted: February 16, 2018

"I cannot think of one instance on this trip where I was not awestruck by the beauty of the fauna, or overwhelmed by how welcoming the people we met were”
Hiking on Quail Island

Hiking on Quail Island

Ever since I started school at Penn State, I had an interest in the possibility of studying abroad. Around my sophomore year, I was struck by the reality that taking an entire semester to study abroad may not be a possibility with my strict academic schedule if I wanted to graduate on time. That was until I got accepted into my major and attended a Biological Engineering (BE) information session where I learned about short-term education abroad opportunities related to BE. One of the programs mentioned in this info session was the winter break Environmental Resource Management trip to the South Island of New Zealand. Within two hours of hearing of this embedded study abroad opportunity, I was on the phone with my family, and two days later was officially enrolled in the course and counting down the days to what would be the greatest adventure of my college career.

Every moment of my trip to New Zealand was an incredibly eye-opening experience. Myself, along with 16 other Penn State students from various academic backgrounds spent 12 days traveling around the South Island of New Zealand with the guidance of our amazing bus driver, Jon, and tour guide, Kate.  Throughout our trip, we were kept extremely busy with lecturers at Lincoln University, outdoor activities including many hikes, a white water rafting trip and visits to several farms, as well as activities and events to learn more about the Maori culture in New Zealand.

Although I cannot think of one instance on this trip where I was not awestruck by the beauty of the fauna, or overwhelmed by how welcoming the people we met were, there were a few aspects of this trip which have greatly impacted my life.

One experience which has had a significant impact on my life was being exposed to another culture. This trip was the first time I had ever left the United States and traveled without my family. It was a big leap and to be quite honest, a little intimidating, switching from my usual domestic vacation travels to a trip halfway across the world with people I didn’t know too well at the time. This trip, however, greatly broadened my views on a culture different from my own, and allowed me to not only meet many New Zealander’s but also travel with so many amazing Penn State students. One of my favorite activities, which exposed us to the culture of New Zealand, was a trip we took to Willowbank Wildlife Reserve where we participated in “The Maori Experience”. Here we were able to learn about the history of New Zealand and the Maori people, experience and participate in some native dances (including the poi and the haka, a traditional war dance) and eat native foods. This was one of the most unique experiences on my trip, which truly allowed me to immerse myself in the cultural history of New Zealand and the Maori people to further understand a bit about their origins. 

As I am a bit of an adventure junkie, one of my personal favorite experiences was getting to go white water rafting in the Rangitata River, located in Canterbury, NZ. As an avid kayaker, with white water rafting on my bucket list, I was so excited to hear this was on our agenda for the trip. Our expert instructor, four other students and myself, set sail on a wild adventure through the level 4 and 5 rapids of the Rangitata River. From my experience, the only way I can explain white water rafting to those who have never been is like being on a rollercoaster without a seatbelt. The rapid’s eddies were so strong at some points of the river, it really showed you where you stood against the elements of nature. Not only was this possibly the most adrenaline-filled, thrilling experience of my life, but I was rafting through the most beautiful bright turquoise waters and surrounded by massive cliffs on either side of us.

In addition to learning about the history of New Zealand through events such as the Maori Experience at Willowbank, I learned so much and was greatly impacted by the people we met every day. Every person we met, from our hiking tour guides at the Franz Jose Glacier and Hinewai Reserve, to the Lincoln University professors who we heard lectures from, was so passionate about their career path. Each individual separately stressed how they thought they had the GREATEST job in the world, working in New Zealand and getting to do what they loved each and every day.  As I took this trip abroad as a junior, at a time when I was trying to determine my career path, this had a huge impact on the way I am now, and will continue to look at my life after college. As cliché as it may sound, the people I met in New Zealand showed me that the most important things in life are not at all tangible, and that no money in the world could fulfill you as much as doing something you love and are passionate about and sharing that passion with others.

This trip to New Zealand was a once in a lifetime experience and I will forever be grateful for having the opportunity to explore a new place with new people. On this trip, I was able to learn from so many amazing people and travel to more destinations than I ever would have been able to alone. Not only did I have the opportunity to meet many individuals native to New Zealand, but through this trip and the courses I took at Penn State, forgoing and following my travels I was able to meet so many new Penn State students, both in my major and outside, which I would never have met if it weren’t for this experience. I left New Zealand with so much more than I could have ever imagined and I can’t wait to return someday.