John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Using Vacation for Reflection on the Mundane and some Eternal Verities

John N. Gardner
President
 
I have just spent 15 days in New Zealand and Australia, on vacation, with a wonderful companion, my very smart and thoughtful wife, Betsy Barefoot. I can never set aside my higher education perspective and thinking about what it might mean to be a college student in a country I am visiting, as compared to the United States. Vacations abroad are also always opportunities to reflect on eternal verities. Some thoughts:

  1. Everywhere I looked, people of all societal levels were using American technology, much of it produced in the Far East. One iconic American company in particular is taking its operating profits out of Australia and transferring them to a tax haven “scheme” in Ireland.
  2. American music is ubiquitous, and usually not jazz or country.
  3. But in both countries some of the taxi drivers listen to classical music.
  4. Bruce Springsteen sells out in New Zealand too.
  5. We rarely ever heard an automobile horn.
  6. People were much more patient than many of our fellow citizens.
  7. Auckland, Wellington, and Brisbane are beautiful, world-class cities where American college students would have a ball.
  8. Our random, visual, non scientific, surveys yield the observation that obesity is less prevalent than in our country, despite the ubiquity of McDonalds and its genre. In all cities we were amazed at how many runners and cyclists we saw. And I noted that McDonalds is fully functional even thougt it must pay much higher minimum wages than in the US and to which it is objecting in the US.
  9.  Citizens feel very safe. This is especially remarkable to me as I noted unaccompanied women running, hiking, cycling virtually everywhere, which I would not see in the US.
  10. Older citizens think that the young really don’t want to work very hard and are looking for handouts.
  11. Older employed workers feel their governments are too generous to younger people who are less than fully employed.
  12. In both countries there are political parties, which have some analogs to our two party system, but in neither is there the deadlock or vitriol we observe on a daily basis in the US, directed by the opposing members to the opposite party.
  13. In New Zealand, one political party is particularly popular with aging, white, men, who have some similarities to the same cohort in the US.
  14. Auckland is now more diverse than London, with over 200 nationalities and ethnicities represented.
  15. The news events we observed getting the greatest coverage over two weeks were the outcome of the Academy Awards selections and the crisis over the Ukraine. But Hollywood trumped the crisis in the Ukraine by a long shot. During the actual awards ceremony which dragged on for hours for American viewers, it did the same for listeners in New Zealand, who were deluged with minute by minute news flashes about who had just won what.
  16. Staff working in the hospitality industry in hotels and restaurants do not expect to be tipped for providing service and for doing the right thing. In part, this is because both countries have very, very generous mandatory minimum wage thresholds for their citizens.
  17. And very low unemployment rates, about half that of the US. It helps to have governments that really do have job creating policies.
  18. Some of the best speakers of English we met were European students working in New Zealand restaurants on work visas while they were on a “gap year” after high school. I felt so glad that now especially women both have this kind of freedom and are exercising it. Would have been unthinkable when I was a college student. We talked to one server whose English was so perfect we could not place her diction from any part of the world, and then after failing to guess her nationality learned she was from Germany. What if we could produce the same kind of fluency in our high school and college students and then send them abroad to “practice?”
  19. It is a good idea for educators to go somewhere every now and then where they are the ones with “accents.” Come to think of it, I often felt that way talking to my students at the University of South Carolina.
  20. Construction is booming everywhere. And the connection between that and full employment is glaringly obvious. I can only hope that returns to the US.
  21. The economic indicators we saw in full bloom are what we would like to see for our college graduates at home, who, as the latest annual Freshman Survey reports,  are more concerned about financing college than ever.
  22. Young people at all social levels are having children. It sure helps when you have national health insurance.
  23. As in the United States, there is a dramatic reduction in teenagers obtaining driver’s licenses. With their smart phones and apps they don’t need cars to find companionship and to hook up.
  24. In the US colleges and universities, not-for-profit and for-profit, are everywhere, sometimes, next to or across from each other. Not so in these countries. Only state (national) run universities get signage. And there is no evidence of a sector like our community colleges.
  25. I saw no “manufactured” housing (mobile homes), not one trailer; and churches are relatively rare.  I could not avoid speculating on the relationship between secularism and standards of living. Most obvious are the grossly obvious extreme differences in wealth that are so visible in the US.
  26. Both countries are approaching zero tolerance for the consumption of any alcoholic beverages; hence there are unbelievable queues of taxis standing outside popular nightspots. Laws do influence behavioral choices.
  27. We observed people smoking marijuana in New Zealand cities but all seemed very peaceful.
  28. Brisbane is the only world city I have every visited where there is a “family” beach, right in the center of the city, and where also women bathers quite freely shed their tops.
  29. The evidence of American companies (“job creators”) is everywhere. And to get there we flew on an Australian flag carrier, Virgin Australian, in a plane made in Seattle. With service far superior to that we are accustomed to on US flag carriers.
  30. The climate in both countries is an incredible draw for people all over the world to visit and resettle, particularly in Australia where immigration is not as restricted. And by climate I don’t only mean the weather.
  31. There is huge interest in what is happening in America. Everybody knows what our significance is.
  32. I have never before thought about what it might be like to live in an “anti-nuclear” country, New Zealand as case in point. And I am referring not only to the generation of electrical power. And these people are really serious about the importance of world peace. There are many more tangible reminders than I would see in my country in town squares and in churches of the terrible loss of human life in the two “great wars”, particularly World War I. Our respect for the “Greatest Generation” has not had the comparable impact on us of making us averse to engaging in foreign conflicts.
  33. Both countries have ethnic minorities. But they were never subjected to de jure slavery, and then levels of de facto discrimination post Emancipation. This is hugely important for understanding the differences between these three countries.
  34. All three countries are former British colonies, but ones that have made very different choices since leaving the “Empire.” Two left the Empire, voluntarily; one by “revolution.”
  35. When in Australia the press was full of a report on world “prestige” reputational rankings of higher education institutions. Only two Australian universities made the top 100. We fared much, much better. In fact, we dominated overwhelmingly, as we do in so many other respects.
  36. The “arts” and all that that means and implies, are extremely important to New Zealanders. While in country we enjoyed three days worth of a two-week plus long New Zealand International Festival of the Arts, hosted every other year in Wellington. It was a cultural smorgasbord, the likes of which reminded us of our own US Spoleto Festival, hosted every year for two and a half weeks in my beloved “holy city” (as they say in South Carolina), Charleston. I would recommend to my readers either and both of these festivals.
  37. When I was a dad of two college students I really was a good dad in terms of providing them opportunities. As an illustration, my younger son who attended Elon University, had the opportunity and took it, for study abroad experiences (what we now call “HIP’s”, High Impact Practices), in Australia, Spain, and Costa Rica (and the Republican National Convention of 1996—truly another country from his home of origin!). When he went to Australia for nearly a month I engaged in some “what if” thinking and wondered if he met some young Australian woman and fell in love with her and the national culture and lifestyle, would he return? He did return. Based on what I saw of Brisbane I am somewhat surprised he did. But then he later went to Spain and loved that as much or more.
  38. It’s a good idea to get outside our country every now and then to see what kind of world our students are entering. I can rarely reduce anything complex to two words, but I can in this case. For our students and the opportunities they can have, the world is: 1) interconnected, and 2) diverse.
  39. Visiting both countries reminded me of how important it is for our own citizens to obtain what my profession offers: a greater opportunity to function successfully in this kind of world. The students I saw and met in both New Zealand and Australia benefit from public policies that make higher education more affordable for them than my students in the US.
  40. But there is a big difference between the challenges of providing THE TWO BIG “H’S”: HIGHER EDUCATION AND HEALTH CARE, to nations of four plus million and twenty-four plus million, respectively, versus our 330,000,000.
  41. Traveling with a smart college graduate sure makes for more interesting conversation about what we are observing and experiencing—one more personal benefit of the positive impact of the college experience.
  42. With almost every New Zealander and Australian we spoke I was reminded that they believe, as do I: that there is no place like home.
  43. The last time Betsy and I visited New Zealand was three years ago exactly. We focused entirely on the South Island where we spent 2 weeks. This time we focused exclusively on the North Island, also for two weeks. On our first visit, we left Christ Church about 9.00 AM on February 21, 2011 and three hours and forty minutes later a terrible earthquake struck and destroyed much of Christ Church. This year we considered ourselves to be equally fortunate and most thankful no national disaster struck either country, coincidentally, after our departure.

I will remember and continue to think about what I learned in New Zealand and Australia for a long time and also continue to apply it to my work as a higher educator.

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