Hamilton City turned on a week of blue skies and sunshine as more than 1800 students prepared to graduate from the University of Waikato last month. Among them was Chinese international student Sky (Ziqi) Ma.
Sky completed his Bachelor of Social Work at the University’s Tauranga campus but opted to have his degree conferred in Hamilton at the second of two ceremonies held on December 10. He wanted to finish up and be ready to move to Australia to start his Master of Counselling and Psychotherapy at the University of Adelaide in February 2020.
Sky threw himself into graduation day in the same way he has embraced life in New Zealand and at the University – with a can-do attitude. He joined in the procession that wound through Hamilton’s city streets before arriving at the graduation venue, posed for photos clutching a graduation toy mascot, and milled around in the summer sun chatting to friends and trying to calm his nerves before the formal part of the day commenced. In fact, Sky has adjusted so well to the laid back Kiwi lifestyle he even contemplated wearing shorts and a tee shirt under his black graduation robe. He ended up going with jeans instead - “You can’t be too casual, aye?” he laughs.
Sky admits that after four years of study at Waikato he barely feels like an international student. “My worldview, behaviour and hobbies are very similar to most Kiwis. I play rugby and basketball, wear shorts in winter and walk barefoot. I may have exotic facial features but my friends, classmates and lecturers just see me as Sky and I am what I am.”
Sky has come a long way from the shy high school student whose parents sent him from Wuhan, China to live in Tauranga seven years ago. Back then, his English was so limited he struggled to understand his Bethlehem College teachers and classmates. Determined to get up to speed, Sky literally spent hours every night translating the day’s conversations on his electronic dictionary word for word. Now he speaks fluent English, with a little Kiwi slang thrown in, and has developed an understanding of the country’s indigenous language, Te Reo Māori (language) and Tikanga Māori (customs and traditional values). One of the highlights of the social work programme was a noho (overnight) stay at a local marae (Māori sacred meeting place).
When Sky and his parents were considering university options, Waikato’s reputation as a future-focussed education provider played a part, as did its world ranking - the QS University Rankings see the University of Waikato currently sitting at 266 in the world (QS World University Rankings, 2020). The location of the Tauranga campus, in one of the country’s most sought-after coastal destinations, sealed the deal. “Hamilton has a beautiful campus but I’m from an inland part of China so being close to the beach was a bonus,” says Sky. “Also, not every university in New Zealand offers the Bachelor of Social Work so Tauranga was a good fit for me.”
Due to the smaller class sizes, Sky got to know his lecturers and fellow students very well. Out of the twenty-odd students in his cohort, Sky was the only Chinese international student, the only student with English as a second language, the only male in the class and one of the youngest students. Typical of his positive outlook on life, Sky believes these differences only benefited him.
“I’ve learnt how to mingle with people much older than me which will help in my career and as a 22-year-old young adult I have a good understanding of what youth need too," he says. "I’m also aware of the shortage of male social workers in the field, so when I’m ready to enter the profession I’ll stand out.”
Sky’s third and fourth year placements, at EmpowermentNZ in Te Puke and Oranga Tamariki Ministry for Children in Rotorua, gave him valuable insight of what to expect when he enters the workforce and confirmed that he wants to work as a youth social worker in the future. “My time at Waikato has definitely shaped me into who I am today,” he says. “I’ve gained a deeper understanding of myself, am less judgemental and have become a more critical thinker. I believe I’ll make a good role model for young people.”
In early 2019, the University opened a state-of-the-art campus in the heart of Tauranga City. Surrounded by the city services, shops, eateries and within walking distance to the picturesque waterfront and a short drive to Mount Maunganui surf beach, Sky says he appreciated spending his final year at the University’s new home in the Bay. “I loved the city campus from the very first day,” he says. “It’s not massive but it’s our own space and provides a venue for the university to organise its own events for students.”
The day after graduation Sky flew to Singapore and Malaysia for a well-earned holiday before heading home to celebrate the milestone with his family in China. Before he bid Waikato a fond “haere rā” (goodbye), Sky offered some words of advice to other international students thinking about embarking on study in New Zealand. “Studying abroad isn’t always easy. If you need help or support, don’t be afraid to ask for it. There are plenty of people willing to give you a hand. And if you get the opportunity to learn a bit of Te Reo Māori, take it!”