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Student Voice

31 May 2020

Our Regional Relationship Manager Shares Her Own Story of Studying Abroad in Egypt

Our Regional Relationship Manager Shares Her Own Story of Studying Abroad in Egypt

Melissa Gillingham is the friendly face of Education Tauranga and, as our Regional Relationship Manager, she wears many hats.

She supports international education providers across the Bay of Plenty, from Waihi to Whakatane. She connects with international staff at primary schools right through to tertiary institutions. She organises events to welcome new students and enrich their experience and she promotes the Tauranga region as a study destination of choice.

While Melissa’s vibrant spirit and warmth are much-loved among our city’s international community, her personal experience as an international student in Egypt is not as well-known.

We thought it was about time we change that! Here is Melissa’s tale of how her year abroad led to a life-long passion for international education.

From New Zealand to Egypt

A bit of a rebel from day one, Melissa grew up in Whanganui where she routinely pushed boundaries, played sports and sought out adventures. At 17, Melissa applied to be an exchange student with AFS Intercultural Programmes, an international and voluntary organisation that has been helping young people gain intercultural experiences for over 70 years. She was accepted along with a handful of other Kiwis and before she knew it she was packing her bags to complete her final year of high school abroad. 

“I wanted to go to Quebec to learn French. When I found out I was selected for Egypt, I nearly fell off my chair. This was 1989: there was no internet and all I knew about Egypt was pyramids and Bedouins!”

Melissa took the surprise placement in her stride. Eager but nervous, she arrived in Cairo, a 10-million-person city completely different to her small, coastal Kiwi hometown.

Language, Family and Culture

Melissa lived with an Egyptian family, shared a bedroom with her host sister and took the bus past the pyramids on her commute to school each day.

“The noise, smells, sights and sounds in Cairo were incredible! Being part of an Egyptian family let me really scratch beneath the surface of a city that can feel like a shock to the senses.”

By the end of her year, she could carry a conversation in Arabic, got into the bartering culture, and felt confident walking the streets of this bustling city.

Melissa’s most memorable experiences

Thirty years on, Melissa doesn’t hesitate when asked about her favourite part of the international exchange.

“The freedom. To carve your own path, wake up each day excited about what adventure lies ahead. Every day was an unknown and I learnt to roll with the ups and downs.”

She also vividly remembers horse riding in the desert with friends, led by a group of Egyptian students who had been international students in America the previous year.

“Not blending in and not speaking the language was tough, but it taught me to be confident and resilient. The challenges were what really showed me what I was capable of.”

The hardest part was leaving, which Melissa describes as devastating.

“I think anyone on an exchange comes home thinking they’ve been to the best country in the world. It’s not the particular place, but the experience which is life-changing.”

The aftermath of studying abroad

There’s no question the years that followed were shaped by her time in Egypt. Melissa ended up back in Whanganui where she worked as a teacher aide, keen to see if her inkling was right that teaching was for her.

It was, but not before some more travel. Melissa worked at an American horse ranch for a summer through Camp America before moving to Wellington and studying to become a primary school teacher. Next up was a long stint in London which saw her work for BBC Magazines as a picture editor.

Melissa knew she had to return to Egypt before finally settling, for good, in New Zealand. By now, it had been ten years since her exchange programme and the country still held a special place in her heart.

“I was going to stay for three months…somehow that turned into two years!”

On this second trip to Egypt, Melissa caught up with her beloved host family, wandered the familiar streets of Cairo and lived in the remote desert oasis of Siwa where she experienced the nomadic life of a Bedouin. Then, in 2000, she landed back New Zealand for good.

International Education

It wasn’t long before Melissa found a familiar rhythm that included adventure and international education. Working with Kuaka, providers of sustainable exchange programmes, she taught bush education to American students eager to learn about New Zealand flora and fauna.

“Working at Kuaka reignited my connection to people from other countries in an educational setting.”

This evolved into an outdoor adventure after school and holiday programme that Melissa and her Kiwi husband, Nick, launched, taking international students on trips and adventures around the Bay of Plenty.

Guiding International Students at Aquinas College

In 2006, deeply entrenched in international education, Melissa became Aquinas College’s director of international students.

“I loved it! All these fresh-faced 16-year-olds from overseas – I loved being the person to welcome them, match them with a host family, orient, support and help them feel at home in New Zealand.”

Having had an experience abroad at a similar age, Melissa was able to really relate to the students.

“I fit this kind of aunty, sister, parent role. I was another layer of their extended family.”

To this day, Melissa keeps in touch with many of her students. She loves watching their journeys and seeing how they evolve over the years after returning home.

“Students often have trouble reintegrating after such a life changing experience. They think it’s over when they leave, but it’s just the beginning! I draw on my own time in Egypt to help ease this transition. They will return to New Zealand one day and it will be a completely different experience!”

Get in touch with Melissa

Melissa came to Education Tauranga in 2017, excited to get involved in the bigger picture of international education in the Bay of Plenty. She’s an advocate and a connector, a supporter of students, teachers and schools.

And it was that first trip to Egypt that started it all. 


Join us on Facebook and contact Regional Relationship Manager Melissa Gillingham for more information:

Melissa Gillingham

 Regional Relationship Manager

 Education Tauranga

 Tel: +64 7 571 1401 ext. 707 | Mob: +64 21 724 272    
 Address: Private Bag 13057, Tauranga 3141, New Zealand  
 Email me