Nicholas Jones

Nicholas Jones is the New Zealand Herald’s education reporter.

Scholars swap notes on 50 great years

Rod Bieleski and Natalie Coates say the Fulbright scholarships enriched their lives. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Rod Bieleski and Natalie Coates say the Fulbright scholarships enriched their lives. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Their trips were 50 years apart and to different coasts, but Rod Bieleski and Natalie Coates found similarities during their time in the United States.

"The people you generically come across, the only thing they know about New Zealand is the Lord of the Rings," said Ms Coates, 28, who studied law at Harvard University in 2011 with the help of a Fulbright award. "If they know a little bit more they associate it with the Flight of the Conchords."

Dr Bieleski, 82, also went to the States on a Fulbright award in 1960, studying plant physiology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

He too recalled being something of a curiosity. During his 18-month stay an Australian arrived for a short time, and the two enjoyed friendly banter. He later had to assure concerned friends the two had not fallen out.

Fulbright New Zealand is celebrating 65 years of educational and cultural exchange between New Zealand and the US, with more than 3000 Kiwis and Americans having received grants for exchanges in each other's countries.

The Fulbright programme, now involving more than 155 countries, was an initiative of US Senator J. William Fulbright, who believed it could help build lasting peace after World War II.

Dr Bieleski and Ms Coates said by the end of their time in the States a great deal of ignorance - in both directions - had been replaced by lasting bonds.

When Dr Bieleski arrived in California in 1960, by ocean liner, New Zealand was still firmly tied to Britain.

Headlines out of the US were largely about the civil rights struggles.

The Fulbright exchange set him on his career as a plant physiologist, and he would return to live in his beloved California several more times.

Ms Coates, now a law lecturer at the University of Auckland, said there were nerves before Harvard, which is far from Te Teko, the tiny Bay of Plenty town where she grew up.

"I was really nervous, actually. Because I just wasn't sure what to expect, because it was so foreign ... but Americans were ridiculously friendly."

Natalie Coates

* Master of Laws at Harvard University, Boston in 2011 and 2012.
* People from 62 different countries on her programme of 180 people.
* Flew to Boston, and to Thailand and back as part of study.
* Found knowledge of NZ heavily influenced by Lord of the Rings and Flight of the Conchords.
* Barack Obama, the first black US president, in first term at time of study.

Rod Bieleski

* Studied plant physiology at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1960 and 1961.
* One of only a handful of foreigners on campus.
* Travelled to Los Angeles by ocean liner.
* Britain still commonly referred to as "home'' by Kiwis at the time, and knowledge of the States heavily influenced by western movies.
* Attended Democratic Party Convention after John F Kennedy nominated as presidential candidate.

- NZ Herald

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