Parkland, Florida students embrace New Zealand on field trip

July 27, 2018 - 3:43 am

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Florida student Tyah-Amoy Roberts said after spending a week in New Zealand, she's strongly considering moving to the country for college.

The 17-year-old is one of one of 28 students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who have embraced the South Pacific nation during a trip here to learn how to keep a youth movement going long after a tragedy fades from the headlines.

The school in February was attacked by a gunman who killed 17 students and staff members, and the students have become known for their passionate advocacy of gun control. They've been hoping to learn from New Zealand's Student Volunteer Army, which helped citizens in Christchurch recover from a deadly earthquake in 2011 and continues its civic-minded work.

Roberts said she knew almost nothing about New Zealand before the trip, other than it was near Australia, got cold and windy at times, and has no natural predators. But she came away impressed with the emphasis on indigenous Maori culture.

"It's been amazing. Eye-opening. New Zealand is a beautiful place with a lot of really, really nice people," she said Friday. "I haven't met a mean New Zealander yet, and I doubt I ever will. And I really want to come back here."

Roberts, who will soon start her senior year, said she wants to study chemical engineering and is considering doing that at New Zealand's University of Canterbury.

"At first I was thinking about study abroad, but then I figured, why not just get a whole degree here?" said Roberts during a visit to the Weta Workshop movie effects studio in the capital, Wellington.

Other students also said they'd also benefited from the trip. Isaac Christian, 16, an incoming junior, said it had helped him solidify his idea of starting a club to identify students who felt isolated and help make them feel more welcome.

He said the shooting has heightened security at the Florida school and changed the mood.

"It doesn't feel the same as it did before, like there's not a lot of cheerfulness," he said. "It's like a different type of energy you get. A different vibe."

For many students, the trip has offered a chance not only to learn but also to relax.

Einav Cohen, also an incoming junior, said her favorite memory was of a carefree night spent with the other Florida students and the children of their New Zealand host families.

"I noticed, wow, I'm really having fun, and I'm not thinking about things in the back of my mind right now," she said. "It really showed me I can be happy again."

Lisa Futschek, a regional director for government agency Education New Zealand which helped organize the trip, said she would love for the students to return.

"It's been an absolutely amazing opportunity for students from different ends of the world to come together and share their ideas, share their experience, share their thoughts about sustaining a youth movement and becoming the leaders of the future," she said.

Former student Nikolas Cruz faces 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the shooting.