With the gradual opening of New Zealand borders, international students from Japan are slowly returning to Whitianga’s Evakona Education (English Language School), and there to greet them in their own language, will be student support staff Atsuko Carse.
Ako, as she is known, well understands how nervous some of the youngsters may be coming to a strange land with an entirely different culture. She was only eleven when she moved from Japan to Whitianga, where her mother Eriko McLean became a teacher of Japanese at Mercury Bay Area School. Evakona is right beside MBAS, which Ako attended as a youngster.
The language school, which has a campus in Thames as well, caters mostly for Japanese students wanting to learn and perfect their English before going on to study at high school here. “In a little way our school is a first step for these students, because there is a big cultural gap. Coming here from Japan to improve their English requires an environment where they feel comfortable and where they have Japanese support, and then the following year, when they are a bit more confident in their English and more used to the culture here, they move onto high school,” said Ako, with only the slightest hint of a Japanese accent.
“At the beginning there is quite a lot of adjustment but over time they do adjust to their new surroundings and integrate into the culture.” Ako that while teaching Japanese at MBAS, her mother Eriko was also looking after international students when she decided to set up Evakona Education, as the language school is officially called, 22 years ago. “She started to feel the need for a language school, especially for Japanese students, because their English was not good enough to cope at High School. “They needed more support or help with their English at the high school to study,” said Ako.
Evakona, which deals with many high schools throughout the Waikato and the Bay of Plenty, offers a 10-month High School Preparation course, teaching NCEA Level One and awarding credits, as well as offering shorter English language courses, varying in length from one week to three months, usually during Northern Hemisphere summer months when students are on holiday from their school. “Students, who are usually 15 or 16, stay with us for a year and then they choose the high school they want to go to, but we also take some younger ones,” Ako said.
MBAS also offers English language courses to overseas students, but their students are mostly European. Ako explained that the students live with home-stay families, which must meet Government regulations and which Evakona checks out.
“We have many home-stay families, but because of Covid, quite a lot of them decided not to continue, but we hope that they will come back,” she said. Covid also affected the way the language school operated, having to set up online courses for students in Japan and getting permission from the authorities to continue offering NCEA credits remotely. “We had no choice because we had no other way of doing our courses,” Ako said. With the partial opening of the border, Evakona, which can cope with up to 60 students, has been awarded 20 of the 5000 international student visa places on offer from the Government.
Initially, the school had thought that the borders would open in a few months, so they started online teaching, but when the borders stayed firmly closed for two years, students, who had wanted to come to New Zealand to go to High School, decided to go to places like Canada and the USA instead. This year more were planning to come to New Zealand.
“I think that international education is the third or fourth biggest industry in New Zealand, bringing in a huge amount of income for the community, tourist operators and schools. Evakona Education is not just the school you see: we place and support international students into schools around New Zealand, early learning centres, and primary, secondary and tertiary education. So, it was a huge blow financially when the borders closed. We work with many schools in the Bay of Plenty and Waikato, where some of the international departments closed down because they had no students. It was a real shame because people lost their jobs,” Ako said.
As well as giving a financial fillip to the economy, international students also added a cultural dimension which was beneficial for Kiwi students as well. “It is good that the borders have started opening and hopefully things will get back to normal soon,” she said.
Pictured: A mother-daughter team for the Japanese students: Eriko McLean, Principal and founder of Evakona (at left of group) and Atsuko (Ako), daughter of Eriko and Student Support Coordinator (standing at far right of photo).