If you spend a semester in Christchurch, New Zealand, you’ll have the chance to admire rugged mountains, active volcanoes, and sandy beaches all within an hour’s drive of the city, says Erin Bortz ’14 (Carmel, Ind.). You might hike the rocky Tongariro Crossing, kayak in Milford Sound, or see where The Lord of the Rings films were shot. But as the first Macalester student to study in Christchurch since 2011’s earthquakes, Bortz also had a more serious aspect to her semester.
For example, her favorite class (while enrolled in the IES Abroad program there) turned out to be Rebuilding Christchurch: An Introduction to Community Engagement in Tertiary Studies. University students responded vigorously to volunteer efforts after the 2011 earthquakes, and this course was designed to continue that response. Bortz learned that 70 percent of the buildings in downtown Christchurch were damaged beyond repair and will have to be demolished. “Before coming to Christchurch,” she admits, “I knew about the recent earthquakes and thought I understood their effects, but I was in no way prepared for how much devastation still exists.”
But with such destruction came a wave of opportunity. The students of Rebuilding Christchurch rode that wave, using class time to help renew the city. “Many organizations have started trying to make the city appeal to more people,” says Bortz. For instance, she describes the popular Re:Start mall, a post-2011 startup business built from colorful shipping containers, as “iconic to the city” and symbolic of rebuilding efforts.
The students forged a “restart” effort of their own. They helped an organization called Greening the Rubble move plants, bushes, and benches into an empty lot where a building had been torn down. They also prepared a community garden for the New Zealand winter, which begins in June. For their final project, nicknamed “Ratray Revamp,” the students worked alongside residents of the run-down Ratray neighborhood to clean up debris. As requested by the neighborhood itself, the class planned a food and music-filled gathering that would encourage residents (mostly construction workers and university students) to socialize and connect.
The chance to volunteer and envision a new city, as provided by her Rebuilding Christchurch class, wove her into the community in ways she never could have anticipated.