China Korea Thai

Default Banner

Student Voice

1 November 2018

Sri Lankan Student Follows in Dad's Footsteps

Sri Lankan Student Follows in Dad's Footsteps

Thirty-two years after spending a life-changing year in Tauranga, Sri Lankan Sanjeeva Wijesekera is back. This time, it’s to visit his daughter, Rovinya, who has been living and studying here for six months.

Sanjeeva came to Tauranga Boys’ College for an exchange programme back in 1986. The adaptable young man took everything in his stride, making strong friendships, soaking up the culture and sharing his own, even boldly taking part in the school production. His year in Tauranga had a lasting impression and the city earned itself a special place in his heart.

Sanjeeva, a commercial pilot for Etihad Airways based in Abu Dhabi, is thrilled that Rovinya is able to experience the world-class life and education that Tauranga has to offer. Best of all, the plan for 11-year-old Rovinya to complete her studies in Tauranga means that Sanjeeva will have plenty of opportunities to visit!


Sanjeeva’s International Exchange

The private boys' school Sanjeeva attended back in Sri Lanka hosted many international students from all over the world. Growing up seeing people from different cultures inspired him to see what life was like beyond the borders of his own country.

“Back then, we knew that in New Zealand you play rugby and cricket and we drank anchor milk. The image of New Zealand as an open country with a strong sporting culture compelled me to come here.”

Arriving in Tauranga

Coming from a city of several million, Sanjeeva found the relative peace and quiet of Tauranga a pleasant change.

“The biggest shock on arrival was how few people there were here. I kept saying, ‘where are all the people hiding?’ Then I found out there were only two million people and four million sheep!”

As one of few international students – and possibly the only Sri Lankan in town – Sanjeeva felt like an ambassador for his country, which motivated him to get involved in the local community and represent Sri Lanka well. He was busy in his year in Tauranga, joining the hockey, cricket and cross-country teams and even taking on a role in the school play.

“It was a non-speaking role as nobody would understand my accent! It was action only and I really enjoyed it. I was only here for a year and I wanted to make the most of my time.”

A Special Host Family Relationship

Sanjeeva lived with a local family, the Akers, during his time in Tauranga. His experience with this warm and welcoming family of five helped Sanjeeva quickly feel at ease in his new country.

So strong was the bond with his Kiwi host family that he has kept in touch with them for over 30 years, with his host parents visiting Sri Lanka three times, including for Sanjeeva’s wedding.

“From the day I left New Zealand I always kept in touch by writing to my host Mum and Dad. They first visited me in Sri Lanka in 1993, then in 2000 and finally in 2003 when I got married. Throughout our honeymoon in Sri Lanka, my host parents were with us.”

Sanjeeva’s host brother in Tauranga was a pilot, and this, in addition to his family’s tradition of working for the army, navy and police, inspired him to pursue a career as an Air Force pilot when he returned to Sri Lanka.

Three Decades Later: Back in New Zealand

Sanjeeva tried several times to revisit New Zealand but the plans always fell through. Finally, 29 years after his year abroad, Sanjeeva returned, this time bringing his wife Charika and daughter Rovinya with him.

“I felt like a kid to be that excited! My host Mum and Dad were there to receive us. I cannot really describe how it felt to show this place that meant so much to me to my wife and daughter. It was too good to be true.”

Sanjeeva was nostalgic as he drove around Tauranga, memories flooding him as he drove past significant spots like his old school and the harbour where he learnt to kayak.

“Tauranga has grown but to me it is still the same. It’s still a one story town which I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world.”

Full Circle: Rovinya’s Introduction to New Zealand

During their visit, Rovinya spent a full day at Greenpark School. International coordinator Lynne Mossop welcomed her warmly and told the family about the international programme. With her interest in the outdoors, love of water and friendly nature, Rovinya fit Tauranga like a glove.

The seed was planted: Rovinya would return to Tauranga for schooling.

“Having the support of my old host family gave us huge confidence in Rovinya and Charika living here.”

In May 2018, Rovinya, accompanied by her mother, mirrored Sanjeeva’s footsteps from 30 years ago: she moved to Tauranga, living in the same house that her father lived in, and attended Tauranga Intermediate School.

Ironically, Rovinya and Charika are the ones currently living in the city so close to their father and husband's heart; however the move allows Sanjeeva plenty of opportunities to visit. In November 2018, he was able to time his visit to coincide with Tauranga Boys' 60th Jubilee, allowing for a treasured reunion of former friends, classmates and teachers.

Life in Tauranga

Six months in, 11-year-old Rovinya is loving the city her father fell in love with three decades ago.

She’s involved in several of sports, including swimming, squash and running, and has made plenty of friends, both locals and internationals.

“Kids are nice here. They were really welcoming and interested in my culture and country.”

Rovinya likes Tauranga’s emphasis on the outdoors and the close bonds students are able to form with their teachers. The significance of recreating her father’s experience is not lost on Rovinya.

“It’s funny, special, weird to be doing the same things that Dad did. It’s like a cycle. After seeing Dad’s photos and hearing his stories, it feels a bit surreal.”



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