A new partnership between Southern Institute of Technology (SIT) and the Panamanian government has seen the first group of students from Panama arrive in Invercargill this month to study English, with planning underway for further groups to make the journey here for education opportunities.
The group of thirteen students first booked tickets and secured visas for New Zealand in early 2020, then the pandemic abruptly brought their plans to a halt.
Joseph Hong, Director of Marketing for Southern Lakes English College (SLEC)
said the group were invited to study online so they could start their English learning. Initially just a few took up the offer, then a few more, until eventually all of the original group joined the online classes, completing four – six months of studies.
When the borders re-opened and the students were free to travel again, it wasn’t a given they would all end up coming to NZ, and further challenges still remained, including a fresh round of paperwork and visas. However, “There’s a very happy ending to this story,” Mr Hong said.
Overcoming a two-and-a-half-year delay and arriving two weeks ago, the students were settling in well to life here. “They like the weather – it’s much cooler than Panama, and easier for studying,” Mr Hong said. The students would remain in Invercargill for seven to nine months, studying English.
Panamanian student Carolina De La Cruz said she is really happy to be in Invercargill, and was adjusting to the differences; she’d noticed traffic driving on the opposite side of the road, and coming from a country with an average annual temperature in the high twenties (Celsius) she was taking the cooler weather in her stride, having purchased a warmer jacket. She said being away from family “is a little sad, but they support us a lot, they know it’s for study, so it’s quite nice to be here.” She is looking forward to meeting new people, seeing new places and experiencing kiwi culture during her time in NZ.
Mr Hong said it had been an exercise in perseverance to bring the partnership to fruition. Starting the project in 2018, there had been a lot of work done to introduce New Zealand, SIT and Southland to the government of Panama. “We had to prove to the government this was a safe country and a good environment for educating their students,” he said.
Panama already had relationships with the US, Canada and Ireland for education scholarships but had not dealt with New Zealand in this capacity. In 2019, SLEC hosted two Panamanian government education officers - responsible for overseas scholarships - and two education agents, who toured SIT’s Invercargill and Queenstown campuses. “They loved it,” Mr Hong said.
The partnership has already opened doors for other Panamanian students to study at SIT Invercargill. “Some are already here and have started studying degrees in Commerce, Massage Therapy, Hotel Management and more – there are nine students enrolled on Panamanian government scholarships, and there will be more to come... there is excellent potential,” Mr Hong added.
Allowing for groups of twenty from their spring and autumn semesters, Mr Hong said SLEC were aiming for forty students per year. Students would be here nine months and could divide their time over two campuses, completing half their studies in Invercargill and half in Queenstown.
Mr Hong stressed the importance of inviting education agents from Auckland and hosting them in Southland, giving them a firsthand experience of all the province offered and helping to break down their misconceptions. After years of contact with agents, in some cases, it has created a break-through, with new sources of students coming to Invercargill. “The agents needed to see SIT for themselves and when they realised it was a universitylevel campus, it has changed their perception,” he said.