By Joyce DeWallace
Shrewsbury – When Lindsey Cobb left Feb. 10 to fly to New Zealand for spring semester of her junior year, little did she imagine what would happen in the next month. She was burdened with two huge suitcases, each weighing 50 pounds, plus a backpack loaded with a computer and books. First, she flew to Los Angeles and spent three days with a school friend before heading off for the 13-hour flight to Auckland followed by the final one-and-a-half-hour flight to Christchurch.
Along with three other Wheaton College students, Cobb got settled in her new quarters and spent a few days sightseeing. She toured downtown Christchurch, New Zealand's second-most populous city; took lots of pictures; and went through the Christchurch Cathedral. Classes started the next week at the University of Canterbury, 10 minutes outside the city. On the second day of school, Cobb, who is majoring in anthropology, was taking a course in Maori culture studies when the earthquake hit.
“I heard a deep rumbling. Then it was vibrating and everything was shaking from side to side. Things just fell off the walls; then the electricity went off,” Cobb said. “People were diving under their desks. The Kiwis were more prepared. There had been an earthquake in 2010. I really didn's know what to do.”
School was closed indefinitely. There was no running water. Cobb's fifth-floor apartment was declared unsafe, and eventually she was allowed to go to her room under the supervision of a structural engineer to get what she needed for the next 24 hours. Along with other students, Cobb was sent to an earthquake-safe common room. She spent that night sleeping on the floor of another international student's room.
Afterward, Cobb walked around to see the devastation. Nearby stores were trashed; shelving collapsed. Pavement buckled at different levels. She learned that Christchurch Cathedral, which she had just toured, had collapsed. 181 people, including one student, were killed in the earthquake. An estimated 7,500 others were injured.
Air New Zealand offered all the international students $50 flights to get out of Christchurch. The airport had not been damaged. Cobb flew to Dunedin awaiting instructions from the coordinator at Wheaton. After two days, she was told to fly back to Christchurch, pack up her things, and head to Auckland on the North Island to attend the University of Auckland, a much larger school.
Not only did she have all her original luggage to transport, but also housekeeping necessities like pots and pans and basic supplies that she had just purchased.
“Air New Zealand was great,” Cobb said. “They didn's charge for overweight. They are the nicest people.”
When she arrived in Auckland, she was housed 20 minutes from the campus. With the help of her father's colleagues in the local EMC office, she found better accommodations just five minutes away from the school.
She had already missed the first week of classes and she found it tough to find open courses. The Global Education Office at Wheaton had to approve her selections. Finally, she was properly enrolled in a Maori performing arts class, art history, English and an anthropology course focused on the cultures of Melanesia and Polynesia.
From then on, Cobb was able to immerse herself in the experience. She learned to speak, read and write the Maori language. She traveled extensively, even spending two weeks in Australia, and experienced many firsts: rugby; bungee jumping; driving on the left side of the road; seeing koalas and kangaroos; visiting an ice bar; horseback riding dressed as a Hobbit at the location where “Lord of the Rings” was filmed; cruising the fiords in Milford Sound; and being dwarfed by the huge Kauri trees in the north. She also made the dean's list.
“I loved the beautiful scenery, the active lifestyles, and the happy people. People were so nice and kind – they call it Kiwi Kindness,” Cobb said. “I want to go back. We'se planning a reunion trip in five years.”
In spite of the earthquake, her junior year abroad was a once-in-a lifetime adventure on all levels.