A quick response to the COVID-19 crisis

Published Apr 8, 2020

The moment it was announced that New Zealand would be moving to a nationwide lockdown within two days, Wellington UniVentures team members Jo-Anne Carley (NZ Programmes Manager) and Rana Daoud (Programme Co-ordinator) swung into action to ensure the continued safety and wellbeing of the 101 international students in their care.

The students are studying in New Zealand as part of two different English language training programmes facilitated by Wellington UniVentures—NZELTO Asia and NZELTO Africa (both delivered on behalf of New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade) and Khebrata course specifically designed for teachers and principals from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to help drive change in their education system.

At 2.05pm on Monday 23 March, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that anyone not working in essential services would be required to stay home from 11.59 pm on Wednesday. On Monday night, Jo-Anne and her team sorted out new room-share arrangements for the 63 NZELTO Asia students and, by 2pm on Tuesday 24 March, they had physically moved 50 of them into different rooms.

“Normally, we book NZELTO Asia accommodation so that each student shares with someone from another country—it helps to foster inter-country relationships, and encourages them to practice English as a common language,” says Jo-Anne. “But with lockdown about to become the ‘new normal’, we decided to move students into rooms with their compatriots; if they couldn’t be at home, then we could at least give them the stability of being with someone from their home country.”

She says that with rooms spanning four apartment blocks, it took four cars, five staff, and three volunteers to move everyone into place on Tuesday. The 18 NZELTO Africa participants were already in single apartments, and able to stay where they were.

By Wednesday morning, teachers from Victoria University of Wellington’s English Language Institute had begun online classes for both of the NZELTO intakes, and webcams were ordered for students who didn’t already have them. By Wednesday afternoon, Jo-Anne and her team had organised the students into isolation ‘bubbles’, dropped off board games and jigsaws (mostly from Jo-Anne’s own collection) and, together with teaching staff, had begun planning how they could still deliver as much of the original programme as possible.

“We’ve undertaken extensive planning to cover a range of scenarios based on differing lockdown periods, airline schedules etc. Our plans look at everything from how we test students in the new environment right through to how we can keep them busy between classes,” says Jo-Anne, who cites an example. “We’d normally email students links to local events they can attend, but now we’re sending them links to virtual tours instead, which they are encouraged to discuss with their tutors afterwards.”

She says all the students are determined to keep speaking English, and many are enjoying their first experience of online learning, recognising it as an important addition to their skillsets. “We’ve been really impressed by the positive attitude they are demonstrating—one student emailed me to say she welcomed the opportunity to train herself to be a self-disciplined learner—especially when they are obviously worried about family back in their home countries.”

Rana—who looks after the Khebrat intake—says that unlike the NZELTO participants, most of the Saudi students have their immediate families with them.

“The Khebrat students are here for a whole year, so 18 of the 20 students have brought their families with them; they live in rental accommodation and their children go to school here in Wellington,” she says. “Having completed seven out of the 12 months of their programme, they are determined to finish the year if they can.”

She says that part of the course involves a 13-week immersion experience in Wellington schools, of which only two weeks had been completed when lockdown came into effect, putting the remainder on hold. Like Jo-Anne, Rana and the Khebrat team are planning for various scenarios—not only for the programme itself, but also for how they will manage things like the students’ accommodation if the lockdown period is extended.

Rana says she sends any information updates in Arabic to avoid potential “lost in translation” misunderstandings, and also prepared an information guide in Arabic as soon as the lockdown was announced.

She says she is delighted by the willingness of students to embrace the time as an opportunity to build new skills. “Some are currently writing a magazine about their experiences in New Zealand prior to Coronavirus, to pass on what they’ve learned to Saudi educators back home.”

Both Rana and Jo-Anne agree that while there’s a lot to do right now, they see it as a privilege to be able to help. “If you think how difficult it is for us in our own country right now, just imagine what it’s like to be going through through it away from the familiarity of home. We want our students to feel safe, supported and cared for during this uncertain time.”