When you’re only 12-years-old, and nearly 10,000km from home, you might be forgiven for getting a little homesick from time to time.
But for Thai student Dana Stamenkovic, the homesickness is eased by being absorbed into the day-to-day life of her Welcome Bay host family.
The Roddick family – mum Belinda, dad Charlie, TK, 10, Dylan, 8, and Maia, 1 – have been hosting international students for Tauranga Girls’ College for the past four-and-a-half years. Dana is their 19th and Riko Furutani, visiting from Tokyo for a few weeks, is their 20th.
For Belinda, whose own parents hosted international students for many years, it is a no-brainer.
“I had a lot of international students coming through my parents’ house and I just loved it,” she says.
“We look at them as extended family. We really enjoy it and, for our kids, it means they have places to go and people to see in different countries if they decide to travel in the future.”
Many international students have already come back to visit the Roddicks since the addition of their new ‘sister’ Maia to the family.
Dana is the youngest student the Roddicks have hosted for Tauranga Girls’ College – most are 14 or older. One student stayed for two years, while most stay between three and 12 months, and some come for just a few weeks. They mainly come from Germany and Japan.
Host families are paid to have the students, but Belinda says while it is an extra source of income, it’s not a lot and some of it is put back into including the students in family life, such as weekends away.
Dana, who spent last year with another Welcome Bay family while studying at Tauranga Intermediate School, has been boarding away from home since she was nine-years-old, firstly in the UK and from 2016 in New Zealand.
With English the main language spoken between her Thai mother and Serbian father, she is fluent in the language as well as Thai and a smattering of Serbian. This year she is learning German and Chinese and, along with her Kiwi friends, jokes that she’s “fluent in sarcasm”.
With more of a focus on rote learning in Thailand, Dana and her parents prefer the more active learning offered by the New Zealand education system.
“The subjects are more challenging and I love my friends,” says Dana. “I’m involved in boxing, water polo and underwater hockey, and played basketball at the AIMS Games last year.”
As an only child, she has also enjoyed being part of a family with siblings to play - and squabble - with.
“My first family had four kids who were all younger than me, and my new family has three kids, also younger than me. It can be loud but I’ve got used to that. It’s nice to have someone to play with.”
Dana is one of around 2700 full-time equivalent international students studying in Tauranga and the Western Bay of Plenty this year. There are also about 300 more each year who visit for just a few weeks on short-term study tours.
The well-being of these students is overseen by Education Tauranga - a group of local educational institutions that offer education for international students at primary, secondary and tertiary level.
“Our core role is to promote Tauranga as a high-quality study destination for international students,” says regional manager Anne Young.
“We do that through partnerships with off-shore agents and schools in a number of key markets we draw our students from.
“We are also tasked with ensuring that the students who study here have a high-quality experience and get the outcomes they want to achieve, whether that be at primary school level learning English, or at tertiary level going into work opportunities.”
Tauranga hosts the most number of international students in the country for a city without a university campus and the highest number of Korean students outside of Auckland, predominantly in the primary sector with 25 local primary schools hosting young students.
Each school hosts only 10-15 students from each country.
“We do attract a lot of students here,” says Anne, “and that’s down to the high-quality study options available in the region.”
International students under the age of 11 must be accompanied by their parents, so Education Tauranga also has a role in supporting the parents of these children. Older children live with host families organised by the schools they are attending.
While individual schools are responsible for organising their own host families, Education Tauranga supports them with information evenings.
“We would absolutely welcome more Kiwi families to come forward and host. It’s not only a great experience for the international students, but it’s a great experience for Kiwis to learn about another culture,” says Anne.
“We see life-long friendships developed through host families. Most Kiwi kids will have an overseas experience at some point, and having those connections with people they have met and studied with really pays off.”