Former international student helping
the next generation settle in to NZ life

Laila Faisal came to New Zealand from Indonesia as a scholarship student and now works as a learning advisor at Victoria University (VUW). She was profiled as part of the Foundation's report Relations and Relationships: 40 years of people movements from ASEAN countries to New Zealand, by Victoria University lecturer Dr Kate McMillan.
woman smiles at the camera

Faisal works as a Learning Advisor at Victoria University of Wellington

Laila Faisal arrived in Wellington in the summer of 1998, continuing a tradition of scholarship students from ASEAN countries studying in New Zealand that stretches back to the Colombo Plan in the 1950s.

When she was accepted into the scholarship programme, she knew very little about New Zealand but decided it was the place for her.

“I knew that Hercules and Xena were both shot there, and the scenery looked wonderfully green. So when I heard that I had been accepted for the New Zealand scholarship, I withdrew my applications for the other two [scholarships in Brunei and Australia].”

 Of the more than 11,000 ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) students studying in New Zealand, a not insignificant number do so on scholarships.

As noted in Dr McMillan's report, 225 New Zealand ASEAN Scholar Awards will be made available each year as of 2016, up from 178 in previous years. Forty-one of these scholarships are funded by the New Zealand Aid Programme and managed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

It’s not all one-way traffic, with the New Zealand Government funding scholarships for New Zealand students to study at top Asian universities, including those in Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia.

ASEAN people movements graph students

ASEAN students enrolled in New Zealand educational institutions 2010-2014

After graduating from VUW with a Diploma in Teaching English as a Second or Other Language and a Master of Arts in Applied Linguistics, Faisal went on to get jobs with the university’s Language Learning Centre and then the Asian Studies Institute.

She now works as a learning advisor at VUW, helping both local and international students to develop their learning skills.

“It is a really satisfying job because I feel I am contributing to the success of students at VUW," she says. "Coming from a different cultural background helps me to empathise with [international] students, and understand where they are coming from.”

Faisal says she found settling into Wellington life reasonably easy, despite the challenging hills and the equally challenging food served up at the university hostel, which she jokes lacked “taste and texture and possibly also fibre”. However, she says some international students struggle to settle in and need the support of the university.

In her report, Dr McMillan references research done by economic consultancy BERL that found living and support services had a "very significant impact" on whether international students reported being happy with their time in New Zealand. McMillan says this emphasises the need for quality accommodation and support if New Zealand is to continue to be considered an attractive destination for international students.

Another factor determining whether international students feel satisfied with their time at New Zealand institutions of learning is the quality of their interactions with locals.

Dr McMillan notes that things may have improved since 2004 when 70 percent of international students surveyed said they would like more New Zealand friends, citing more recent research by BERL that found international students were "generally satisfied" with how well they integrated with people in New Zealand. 

As an example of steps being taken by a New Zealand university to enhance the experiences of international students, Dr McMillan makes reference to VUW's International Buddy Programme, which matches new international students with domestic or international students already enrolled at the university.   

The difficulty international students sometimes have in meeting and interacting with locals is something Faisal witnessed first-hand at the university hostel when she first arrived in New Zealand.

“There would be a table of international students and the only Kiwis at that table would be Kiwis who have travelled widely themselves. The ones who haven’t travelled usually kept to themselves."

 However, she encourages international students to be brave and step out of their comfort zone.

“The key – though it sounds intimidating – is to put yourself out there. Join clubs available at university, and try not to just stick to hanging around with people from the same country.”

Faisal keeps in close contact with family and friends in Indonesia and makes sure her daughter, whose father is a “Kiwi” knows about her Indonesian heritage.

ASEAN people movements report author Dr Kate McMillan is a senior lecturer in Comparative Politics at Victoria University of Wellington. Her research and teaching interests focus on immigration, citizenship and media politics.