Why We Left New Zealand

Continuing in our series of Migrant Tales, first had accounts of the migrant experience in New Zealand taken from locations around the net.

Today’s tale was sent in by a reader and it was first published on Blogspot. The author moved to Christchurch shortly before the deadly February quake, her partner planning to study at the university. Her partner started classes on the day the earthquake struck, those were to be his last for a month. The family’s security quickly disappeared and they found themselves in dire financial trouble, this is their story of why they left and how they got out.

Saturday, 13 August 2011
Why We Left New Zealand
“This is a tough story to tell. Here we go.
When we arrived in Christchurch on February 1, 2011, we were tired, hungry, slightly scared but filled to the brim with adrenaline.

After getting our baggage, we found the rental car pick up bus that would take us to our rental car. We packed up our rental car and headed out to find our hotel. Lola, our GPS guide, was very helpful, but unfortunately, took us to a hotel with a very similar name to the one we had reserved. Let’s just say that after 20 hours of travel, and having been awake for close to 36 hours, with only short naps on the plane to keep our brains going, I can hardly believe that we learned to drive on the left side of the road and that we stayed alive. But we did. Against the odds from the start.

We arrived at our hotel and settled in. I remember that we had lunch at Subway- and that they did not serve pizza. The guy looked at me like I was nuts for asking for pizza at a sub shop. Oh well. I was too tired to explain that in the US…. maybe that is why Americans are so fat. Hehe. We went to the beach in Sumner after resting a bit after lunch. Driving up Sumner Hill and finding Taylor’s Mistake on such little sleep.. yikes. It was pure adrenaline, I tell ya!

Afterwards, we shopped at New World for groceries that could be either eaten fresh or microwaved.
Eventually, we caught up on sleep. Then we found the mall! We got cell phones at Vodafone and after a quick call home to Mom to let her know we had arrived safely, we started calling possible rentals. No one answered their phones! We realized that going with an agency was probably the only way we would make progress during the day, so we called a certain bad one (little did we know) and found our home away from home within 2 days, and were moved in shortly after. We spent some time sight seeing and had a fun time dreaming up all the adventures we would have. Akaroa, Arthur’s Pass tease, the beach, and Akaroa again.

Then the first day of classes came, Tuesday, February 22nd. That fateful day that presented an earthquake to the city just before noon, less than 2 hours into classes for ****. You can read my detailed account of my experience of the earthquake here.

The whole city was on lockdown. Almost 200 people dead. City Centre was reduced to rubble in less than a minute. We were safe, though changed in a moment. Living through such a disaster leaves no one unscathed.

We stayed home a lot and rocked each aftershock out. We moved *****’ air mattress into our room, and we spent a lot of time boiling water and staying close to home. School was out for over a month. Now what? We were broke (no money for gas either!) and had nothing but time in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Financial trouble was present from the moment we landed in ChCh. In the form of renting a car for over a month and paying almost $2000 to do so. We learned about 6 weeks too late that we could do a “long term rental” with another company for just $10 a day vs $60 a day that we had been paying. Ouch.

We came to NZ with borrowed money from Mom, in addition to our meager savings for the first month until we received our financial aid and GI Bill benefits kicked in. We planned to have quite a comfortable budget beginning late February, and to pay Mom back after we received all of our financial aid. It was the US Govt… what could go wrong? If only we knew…

Basically, by the time we paid for the rental car, paid for the hotel, for food, gas and first month’s rent + bond and letting fee, we were cutting it close. We took a trip to the Warehouse and purchased the cheapest dishes, of course our air mattresses, bedding, sheets and towels and other bare minimum essentials, as cheap as we could stand.

This is about the time we found out that the VA lost ******’s application for program approval, that had been sent out by the Uni months before. So that had to be resubmitted in April! We had planned to receive that money in late February.

Once the earthquake hit on the 22nd, all communication halted with the Uni. It took about a week to get a hold of the financial aid office, as the entire campus had been evacuated and they had to set up a temporary makeshift office. Student loans had been disbursed, but were sitting in the Uni’s bank account waiting to be sent out to us!

The VA finally approved the program and we received back pay ($3000ish) of BAH in May.
We were intent on making it work though, so we brushed ourselves off, set up a strict budget, and waited for the Uni to get back on it’s feet.

It did, and things calmed down slightly and classes started up again. Meeting in a downtown building for *****, with no desks and no windows. ***** and I stayed close to home, venturing out to Willowbank a couple times a week to busy ourselves in the broken city. We were pleasantly surprised at the strong spirit of ChCh and the desire to rebuild the city was turning into plans for a better city.
We got $7700 nzd from student loans in that first disbursement which we budgeted to last until GI bill benefits kicked in. We called the VA to find out where the tuition checks were, and they said that they had been mailed. We checked with the Uni, the checks had been returned due to earthquake mail trouble. The VA reissued the checks.

But then another 6.3 quake hit on June 13th. The Uni shut down again for inspections. Finals week was looming. ***** had gotten A’s and B’s in his classes up til this point, but was not fit to study for finals.

After calling the VA to check on the status of the checks, we found out that they were only going to pay $5,500 per semester ($11,000 total for the year) towards an annual tuition of $27,000. USD, leaving us with $16,000 in additional student loans. Woah! Hold on. That’s not what was advertised. And they can’t confirm the amount you will receive until you are ENROLLED in classes. So even though we didn’t know this, it was not anything we could have avoided.

We were expecting for the VA to pay up to $17,500 , but the way they cap it for International Uni’s is: $5,500 tuition and up to $14,000 in fees. Due to the fact that International Uni’s balance their books differently, it worked sorely against us. The Uni didn’t allocate any part of the tuition towards fees, so we were left with the gaping difference.

They sent new checks and we waited still.

It was at our last visit to Willowbank around this time that ***** and I talked seriously about how everything was working out. I asked him point blank if he was enjoying Medical Physics, because I was secretly wanting to abandon the plan and run home. His answer surprised me, both pleasantly, and alarmingly. He was not enjoying what he was studying to become. I knew it, all along, I could sense that what he relayed of his classes and hospital tour to me were just not up his alley. His image of Star Trek technology and medicine was far from the reality of governmental rules, hospital regulations, strict routines and no thinking outside the box. Unless you’re in research, which can be quite interesting, but the path is long and opportunities are limited.

We figured out that Medical Physics was not the best field to enter due to the declining attitude towards International medical physics degrees. Basically, you have to graduate from a CampEp accredited university in order to practice medical physics in the US, and getting into one is nigh impossible.

At this point, we were sick of sleeping on air mattresses and living with a dining room table as our only place to sit. We were sick of the earthquakes. I was quite terrified and wanted to go “home”. We reminisced about our warm apartment in LA and the safety, the solid ground, it offered. We glamorized the glamorless.

We got home and asked the questions… how, when, with what money, when!?

We held out for as long as we could to find out about finals, which were essentially reduced to Aegrotats. The week we planned to leave, volcanic ash threatened to ground our plane, but thankfully we were able to make it. We sold everything we had acquired up til then, a jogging stroller, dining table, and Thomas the train sets- I think that is all, and donated or trashed everything else. We met some pretty awesome people as we sold our stuff. It was hard to acknowledge that our dream was turning into a nightmare and ending in abandon.

Due to some trouble getting out of our lease, we were sent to Tenancy Tribunal. Thankfully, the property manager did not get what she was wrongfully asking for. The whole experience renting in NZ made us feel vulnerable and unprotected. There was no break-lease clause for Internationals, or even for extenuating circumstaces.

By the time we left the place, one of our two bedrooms was flooded from a broken pipe due to the earthquakes and aftershocks. It was a foul mess.

We happily flew home, thanks to *****’s Dad for buying our plane tickets out, and landed safely in CA. We quickly realized that the US was dealing with it’s own nasty disasters, of the man made kind. Aside from some disappointing family drama, what was meant to hurt us only made us more resilient and ended in us having the time to spend at our favorite place in the US- Disneyland, where we were treated to magical memories that we will never forget. Thanks Dad!

We quickly made plans to return to our old apartment complex in Louisiana. That was our safe haven. We needed to turn to God to ask the age old questions and take some time to catch our bearings.
The Uni finally received the checks, processed them and after a ton of failed attempts to contact our local branch in NZ, succeeded in getting them the docs they required to initiate a wire transfer. We finally received the money owed to us in our US bank account on July 1st, with just pennies left in our bank account as we sat in our new apartment here in Louisiana, having spent the last of our money to pay first months rent…”