Secondary school students involved in a mission exchange program between New Zealand and Vanuatu don’t see the world in quite the same way after their intercultural experience.

“We have made life-long friends in Vanuatu and the memories of them and the kindness shown to us by the people of Vanuatu will stay with us forever,” says New Zealand student Chloe Perkinson about her 10-day visit to Vanuatu.

The Global Mission Office (GMO) of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand has been supporting cultural immersion experiences for students at Presbyterian schools in the two Pacific region countries for the past several years. While in Vanuatu, the New Zealanders attend classes with local students, are matched with a Vanuatu student “buddy” and work on mission projects.

To date, four schools in New Zealand are actively participating in the program in cooperation with Onesua Presbyterian College, a co-educational boarding school on Efate — one of Vanuatu’s main islands — which hosts the young New Zealanders during their stay.

Two students from Vanuatu have visited New Zealand in return.

The trips are designed as a way of linking students in Presbyterian schools to the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand.

Andrew Bell, GMO advisor, says the trips give students a chance to participate in actual mission work, rather than merely donating to a cause. “It’s gone from sending donations to making real relationships. The beauty of this is that it puts flesh and bones to the recipients,” he says.

St. Oran’s College principal Dawn Ackroyd took a group of students to Vanuatu for the first time in 2008. Four St. Oran’s students were joined by four students from Turakina Maori Girls’ College, a model which will be repeated on future trips for students from the two schools.

Ackroyd says she heard about the exchange program at the 2007 Presbyterian Schools’ Conference in New Zealand. She felt the program matched then sense of service which underpins St. Oran’s philosophy and she was inspired by meeting Jonathon Tarip, principal of Onesua Presbyterian School.

In preparation for their trip to Vanuatu, students raised money for sports equipment and put together an art program which they ran at Onesua College.

The purpose of the weeklong visits, Ackroyd says, is to experience a different culture, to develop friendships and to assist people. What most impressed her during the 2008 trip was the difference in attitudes to education between students in the two countries.

“Students … spent a day following their buddies and reported back to me that in one class the teacher failed to turn up,” she says. “They were somewhat surprised when one of the students took charge and they all just got on with their work — not wasting any time. They did not seem to think that this would happen back home.

“When I asked them why this was, they said, ‘It’s because they value their education, they know that they are lucky to be at school, so they make the most of every day.’”

This year, St. Oran’s joined with GMO to sponsor two senior students from Vanuatu to visit New Zealand and spend a week at the college, followed by a week at Turakina Maori Girls’ School. They were partnered as “buddies” with their New Zealand student hosts and also met with students and their families who will be going to Vanuatu in the near future.

The learning doesn’t stop at the end of the exchange visits. Students report back to their schools and to the schools’ boards of trustees, as well as to their presbyteries. Students from both countries have also been invited to radio interviews about their experiences.

Editor’s note: The Presbyterian Church has long supported educational ministry in Vanuatu, most recently through missionaries and school teachers Bruce and Lora Whearty. Currently, PC(USA) mission there is coordinated by David Walter, regional liaison for the Pacific region.

For information about and letters from PC(USA) mission workers around the world, visit the Mission Connections Web site. — Jerry L. Van Marter