Dunedin culture: An international perspective

Dunedin culture: An international perspective

The general consensus: Clubs are essential, mullets are done, and DnB sucks. And Castle St? “There’s nowhere else like it.”

Now that the Covid monster has been slain (in the eyes of policymakers at least), the borders have opened and Dunedin has welcomed a swarm of international students finally able to fulfil their questionable dreams of studying at Otago. This year, the University has more than 750 international students commencing study compared to the approximate 200 this time last year, which the University’s acting Vice-Chancellor Professor Helen Nicholson was happy to report. But how’d we attract students from around the world to Dunedin, of all places?

A few clicks onto Otago’s International Students’ hub reveals a million reasons why they should fork out thousands of dollars to study at the prestigious University of Otago. Pictures of the historic Clocktower framed by pink cherry blossoms sit alongside photos of students in big glass windows sipping coffee and laughing. Naturally, the University has made the intelligent marketing decision to leave the rest out.

It makes you wonder whether these students knew what they were getting themselves into when they bought a plane ticket to Dunedin. Critic Te Ārohi sat down with some international students studying here to gather some insight into what it’s really like to rock up to Dirty Duds.

Sarah, here on a semester exchange from her uni in Minnesota, hadn’t heard much about Otago when she applied besides that it was an “old school, has a lot of people, and a good geology program.” Needless to say, Sarah was “surprised” when she arrived and saw the glass-strewn streets and heard DnB vibrating behind those advertised cherry blossoms. “I was surprised that [some of this stuff is] endorsed by the school. At my school that would never be a thing.” She also didn’t expect a whole Facebook page dedicated to parties, nor a party culture that operates every day of the week. “I didn’t expect things every night of the week…that really threw me off.” After attending her first Castle St party, Sarah was astounded. “It was unlike anything I’d ever been to. There were about as many people on the street as there are in my whole class at home”.

Natasha is a full-time international student from Colorado. “My dad told me ‘stay away from Castle St and don’t burn couches.’ I had no idea what he even meant by that ‘till I got here.” Like Sarah, Natasha recognised that there is “some inconsistency” between the way the University advertises itself and the reality of Dunedin student culture: “You search up the Uni and see this beautiful campus, and all these beautiful professors, and everything OUSA says. But you don’t hear about the couch burnings and the broken glass.”

In contrast, the party culture and residential vibe of the University was part of what drew Whitney to Otago, here on a semester exchange from Seattle. Although, she was still surprised to see what a Castle party is really like. “It’s just, like, funny. It was such an event I would never see at home,” where she said she was accustomed to the different partying habits. “At home there’s frat row and Greek life,” but street parties are not a thing. “We have to stay inside the house, otherwise you get in trouble.”

Reid, a full-time international student from California, had heard a little bit about Dunedin student life but it wasn’t what attracted him to the University. “I just saw that it was a good Uni,” he said. When he arrived here, he saw that the Dunedin lifestyle was “not normal uni stuff… [Students are] more focused on the social and partying aspect. It’s ingrained in your experience here. People take pride in the party scene.” Eddie came to Otago from Fremantle, Perth to complete his one-year postgrad. He knew Otago had a “better student culture” than his previous university. At first, he found the party culture a “bit of a shock”, and “a bit overwhelming.”

“It’s false advertising,” said Keegan, an international student from Lake Tahoe. “I think it’s poor for the University to do that.” She was drawn to Otago after watching an exchange student’s study abroad video on YouTube. “I thought, ‘That looks pretty.’” But she really knew nothing about Dunedin when she moved here. “There’s definitely an inconsistency between how the Uni presents itself and the reality.” Keegan herself didn’t mind because she likes the partying and drinking side of things. “However, you have a lot of people who come over here who might not. The way that students bond with each other is drinking. Others can feel left behind.”

Emily, finally here from Bali after studying as a distance student since 2021, isn’t much of a partier and has never engaged in the party scene of Dunedin. “I had no idea about the drinking culture. I only learned about it when I got here.” She felt that the University advertises itself as a “peaceful university with a prestigious reputation,” and could “mention [the student party culture] in a few more things.” However, Emily didn’t feel that it had negatively impacted her time here, as there are a lot of other options for students who are not big partiers.

Karl isn’t much of a drinker either. Here from Germany as a full-time international student at the Polytech, he didn’t know anything about the party culture, discovering it upon arrival. However, he has still found it easy to get involved in other things, having joined the tramping club and attended other events put on by the Uni.

Dunedin’s party reputation is bolstered by the fact that it’s the only place in the country where undergrads dominate an entire area of the city. Otago’s International Director Jason Cushen told us that “Otago is New Zealand’s only ‘residential campus’ with close to 20,000 students (including Polytech) located in the North Dunedin area. While the start of the academic year often results in a large number of social activities in the North Dunedin area, this is not reflective of the daily community culture in the student area.”

But when the parties are on, they’re on. “It’s the experience I was looking for,” said Keegan. Whitney has found it “really cool”, and Eddie said it’s been a “defining factor” of his time here. He said that nothing like a Castle St party would be able to happen in Australia because Police presence would be “way too high… I reckon there’s more acceptance from the cops here.” On the other hand, Karl sees it as “a bit out of control”, and Emily feels it tends to be “disruptive” at times. Sarah actually found it a bit underwhelming; after attending a few Castle parties, she had expected more people to be dancing and socialising or playing some sort of games. “I felt like when I was there most people were just sort of standing around and drinking and not doing a whole lot else.” Yeah. Welcome to Dunedin, Sarah.

And then there’s the soundtrack to these parties: Drum and Bass. Aidan told us that he wondered “why all the flats are playing the same song on repeat for at least a month after I got here.” Whitney was a “big fan”, but Eddie reckons “DnB sucks. They’re just butchering good songs with shitty remixes.” Sarah agreed: “DnB - not a fan.”

One thing the students could agree on was Dunedin students’ unprecedented obsession with throwing things, particularly glass. “It pisses me off when we break bottles in the street and burn furniture,” said Natasha. “We should take better care of our North Dunedin area.” Whitney knew Castle was “notorious for parties and broken glass,” having read articles online about what the town is infamous for. “The glass throwing is definitely different. People would get arrested for that at home.”

Despite the glass, Whitney found Castle to have a nice “communal” and “wholesome” vibe. But she was in the minority. “I’ve never had a good time there,” said Natasha. “Pimps and Hoes night, that’s just fucked up.” She also had a bit of an altercation one night on Castle where “two guys got in this fucking fist fight next to me and I got punched in the face because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Dunedin students’ ability to balance academics and partying is one that has been expertly honed throughout generations. Business up front, party in the back, just like their hair. “More mullets per capita than anywhere else I’ve ever been,” said Eddie. But for international students who are just entering the game, finding that balance can be tricky. Sarah feels like the academic structure lends itself to more partying, and more partying lends itself to less academic motivation. “Coming in as an outsider, I’m still trying to find that balance.” Karl also found that the New Zealand standard of education is a lot less “strict” than in Germany. “The general vibe is more relaxed.”

In terms of support given to international students by the Uni, a lot of full-time international students felt as though the University could improve on their available support systems. “I think support for longer term international students is still developing,” said Keegan. According to Reid, they sometimes “kind of feel like second best to domestic students.”

In particular, the student visa application process can be daunting. “The last two years we’ve had to do it ourselves. It’s definitely harder now," said Reid. International Director Jason Cushen said Immigration NZ retired their Provider Direct Visa-on-campus service in December 2021, but the University's Student Visa team "continues to support students with their visa applications where we can, including provision of required documentation, confirmation of enrolment, and support for students to understand the INZ student visa process." 

In general, exchange students felt that the University does a great job at providing support to international students. “I feel like the support has been better from Otago than my home school,” said Sarah. Whitney felt the same: “The Uni has been super helpful. Even just getting my login and classes figured out. AskOtago was great. They’re amazing and do everything for you.” Upon coming to the University, Emily found that the institution has provided “pretty good support”, being “responsive to emails” and helping with her initial orientation. The clubs and societies offered at Otago are also great for international students. “They provide so much support,” said Reid. Keegan is also a “huge club proponent” as a way for “exiting from drinking culture.” Natasha said they are where she’s found “the best friends and parties.”

So, life in Dunedin has been surprising for some and shocking for others. But, overall, the international perspective appears to be a positive one. As notes of foreign accents waft throughout campus, it invokes a certain feeling of gratitude to be able to once again live in an open world and be able to share our little piece of it with people from all over. To all international students: Nau mai, haere mai. Welcome to Dunedin, we’re happy to have you back. 

This article first appeared in Issue 6, 2023.
Posted 2:55pm Sunday 2nd April 2023 by Anna Robertshawe.