A student killed in a crash just outside Rotorua on Christmas Eve has been described as Sunny by name and also by disposition.

Jie Hu, known as Sunny, 23, was on her way to spend Christmas with her Rotorua host family when she died.

The three-car collision happened at the intersection of State Highway 5 and Maraeroa Rd just after 9pm on Sunday.

Host father Don Gunn said the family were expecting Sunny to arrive that evening, ready to go into work on Christmas Day, before coming home for dinner with the extended family.

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"It was a shock to get the knock on the door at 11.30pm that night."

Sunny moved to New Zealand from Beijing, China, last year to study a graduate diploma of tourism management at Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology.

"She was a lot like her name, she was very outgoing, vibrant and friendly, she had absolutely no trouble making friends," Mr Gunn said.

"She really was like one of our daughters, we were very close to her and obviously it has all come as a shock."

 Jie Hu, 23, known as Sunny, was on her way to spend Christmas with her host family when she died. Photo / Supplied
Jie Hu, 23, known as Sunny, was on her way to spend Christmas with her host family when she died. Photo / Supplied

He said Sunny would give anything a go and had recently secured a job at the Millennium Hotel in Rotorua.

"It was a real testament to her persistence, she applied to a lot of places, but she had found a job she loved there."

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Host mum Sue Gunn said Sunny had a "completely positive attitude".

"She was a really lovely person to be around and to have in our home."

Sunny's parents are on their way to New Zealand from China.

The Gunn family praised the international department at Toi Ohomai for its support since the crash.

 The scene where Jie Hu died on Christmas Eve near Rotorua. Photo / Stephen Parker
The scene where Jie Hu died on Christmas Eve near Rotorua. Photo / Stephen Parker

Toi Ohomai chief executive Dr Leon Fourie said the institute was shocked and saddened by Sunny's death.

"Sunny was a warm, funny student who brought a smile to all who knew her. We are currently working with family members and her host family to assist them with getting Sunny home to China.

"Our heartfelt sympathy and condolences to her many friends, classmates, tutors and, of course, her family."

He described Sunny as a much-loved student. Her friends have taken to Facebook to share their tributes.

"You were a bundle of joy and energy that put a smile in the faces that surrounded you. Thank you, you beautiful soul, for everything - laughter, friendship and memories," one wrote.

Three other people were initially trapped after the crash, with two suffering serious injuries and a third suffering minor injuries.

The police serious crash unit is investigating the cause of the crash.