The Tauranga region has successfully tapped the country's fourth largest export industry - international students. International education is expected to contribute more than $55 million to the region's economy this year. Bay of Plenty Times Weekend reporter Dawn Picken shows us how overseas students are not only helping schools' budgets, they're changing lives in homes and classrooms throughout the Bay.

First-hand experience
Part of the local international education story is scribbled on our kitchen wall. That's where you'll find pencil records of the height of not only my own two children, but also of three teenagers: Regina, from Mexico; Sofia, from Italy; and Julia, from Brazil. The girls lived with us for periods ranging from five months to one year while attending Mount Maunganui College.

The teen who lived here the longest, Sofia Franchini, arrived as a 17-year-old hesitant to speak English and quickly won us over with spaghetti carbonara, tiramisu and her sense of humour. She left last July, speaking very good English, and, as a family member.

It doesn't always work this well. One Bay mum and her family, who've hosted a dozen college students over six or seven years, say they had one international who was exceptionally difficult. The girl decided not to eat, stared at family members for "hours on end" and gifted them her diary where she wrote her life had no value. Host mum (who I'm not naming to protect the student's privacy) kept the girl six months.

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"She had mental health issues and really low self-esteem ... the school was prepared to move her to another family, but she seemed quite vulnerable, and we were thinking we were having some kind of impact on her life."

Host mum stopped taking students last year, even though she says most of her students worked out well. She got a fulltime job which meant she doesn't have time to track a teenager's movements and she says her family doesn't need the extra $1000 per month.

"I'd go back and do it all over again. Some of them, we really enjoyed having them with us. Some of them have been back to see us."

For situations where student and family fail to mesh, school co-ordinators will find another placement.

Hosts are police vetted and interviewed before being accepted as homestay families. They receive around $250 per week to provide room, board and a Kiwi family experience. Students are expected to obey rules, help around the house and take part in activities.

Money plays a role in Tauranga's international education growth, but doesn't paint the full picture. It's something I've heard over and over while interviewing people for this article. Locals who place, educate and host students, I'm told, are headed for trouble if they're in it just for cash.

Growing sector

Education Tauranga, a group whose roughly 40 member schools market themselves and the region to international students, reports the Western Bay has seen 35 per cent growth in internationals during the three years leading to 2016.

Regional manager Anne Young says the export value (tuition plus household spending over a year) of educating international students in Tauranga and the Western Bay last year was $55 million. She says that figure is low because the Ministry of Education only counts students who stay at least a year.

"They [MoE] don't capture anything short-term. We had another request from three groups this morning. We're pretty much chocka. The Chinese international rugby team is coming in the next three weeks. There's a whole heap of different programmes happening other than education for a period of a year or more."

Mount Maunganui and other local intermediate schools host short and long-term students. MMI International co-ordinator Jane Howard says the school has 16 long-term students who study for one to two years, plus several groups coming for cultural visits from eight days to two weeks.

She says the number of internationals has grown considerably. "... in the past four years the number of long-term students has quadrupled. We also host more short-term groups throughout the year."

Young says Tauranga has the largest primary school sector for international education outside Auckland. The majority of primary students come from Korea, and New Zealand rules state children under age 11 must be with a parent.

International students in the Bay of Plenty spend an average $28,500, according to Education Tauranga's 2015/16 report.

Young says New Zealand institutions can set their own fees, but local primary schools work together and have fixed yearly tuition cost at $12,000. Local college fees vary. For example this year, Tauranga Girls' and Boys College charge $15,250 per year; Mount Maunganui College charges $13,000; Otumoetai College, $14,500. Colleges also charge administration fees of up to $1000 for homestay placements and other services.

Education Tauranga member schools are working together to further increase numbers of international students.

"If we grow the pie, everyone gets a bigger slice of it. You have to believe in what you're selling, believe in Tauranga as a destination. As long as we can attract them, where they go doesn't matter."

Young has just returned from a recruiting trip to Thailand and China and believes the Bay is 'underexposed' when it comes to China. In addition, she says there's room to grow the tertiary market when the new university campus opens in Tauranga

Already, English language schools are seeing substantial growth - with numbers up 88 per cent from March 2015 (78 students) to March 2016 (147 students).

At Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology, spokeswoman Meg Jones reports 788 international EFTS (equivalent fulltime students) are enrolled this year, while the target is 1080. Toi Ohomai's goal for 2018 is 1114 international EFTS. Fees are substantially higher for international students than domestic. TOM's website shows international fees sit around $8300 for a certificate in real estate course, while domestic fees are $1200.

Young says while Korean students dominate the primary school market, German students make up a good portion of high schools and India is a significant part of the tertiary market.

"It's not just economic value, but the value these students bring to our Kiwi kids in a social and cultural context."

Primary experience

Heejun Shin and Eli Johnston run around together during morning tea time at Greenpark Primary in Greerton. The six-and-a-half year-olds share a birthday and are best buddies, according to Shin's mum and school staff.

Shin arrived in the Bay with his mum, Su Im, a year-and-a-half ago. Her two sisters also live in Tauranga, and a niece attends Aquinas College. Im says she wanted to give her son the happy childhood Korean students don't have when they're studying until nine each night.

"I don't want my kids spend his young life in a terrible stressful stages. It's not only for English, [it's a] beautiful environment and people are nice."

She says the toughest part was finding a rental home in the Bay. Im has moved twice already and lives with her sister in Pyes Pa. She and her son sacrifice living with her husband, who works at a Korean university. Still, when I ask how long she plans to stay in Tauranga, she answers, "Four, five [years], maybe graduation."

Im says $12,000 per year in tuition is reasonable compared to the roughly US$30,000 ($41,707) it would cost to send Heejun to an international school in Korea.

Annie Jeong has been sending her 10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son to Mount Maunganui Primary school for one-and-a-half years. Unlike most Korean mums, she brought her husband.

She quit her flight attendant job and her husband quit his computer engineering job to move to New Zealand and have more family time. She chose Mount Primary after meeting principal Damien Harris in Korea. She writes in an email it was difficult at first for her son, who arrived speaking no English, but staff were helpful.

"Nowadays kids are always happy to go to school, have many friends and enjoy this relaxed, slow life style. They run, bike, swim, climb up trees everyday rather than studying at their desks. They do not hide behind me anymore and can stand alone in front of others speaking in English."

Roll growth and budgets

Greenpark Primary International manager Lynne Mossop says the school will have 26 foreign students as of next term, out of a total roll of 856.

"We were the first primary school to have international students in this region."

Five years ago, she says Greenpark had around 15 students from overseas. No more than one international student per nationality is placed in each classroom, and Mossop says Kiwis benefit from learning and playing with kids from other countries.

"Our school values are respect and empathy. They understand and respect other cultures and gain the skills to succeed in a multicultural world."

Mossop says the school received $150,000 in international revenue last year and has, over time, used the money for additional staff, classrooms and three vans.

"We have music suites with special teachers, an arts, dance and technology suite, a commercial kitchen along with a science and robotics room.

"Students have a lot of opportunities many other schools wouldn't have and we wouldn't have them without international students."

Otumoetai College principal Dave Randell says the school has 80 international students and a total roll of 2000. He says the school has built several classrooms using international fees.

"We haven't been overcrowded, because we've used the money to add facilities to our school ... If we didn't have international students, we'd be in the red every year. These days, it helps to balance the books and we do need a good number to do that."

He says internationals help the school's sports teams, and take part in cultural and music groups.

"They add a positive dimension to the school, because that's the real world out there."

Mount Maunganui College has 65 international students out of a total roll of 1500. Tuition this year costs $13,000, but will rise to $14,500 next year. Factor in homestay and other fees, and the cost of spending a year studying at a public college in the Western Bay sits around $30,000.

MMC International manager Allan Goodhall says what sets the school apart is student mix - about half of internationals come from Europe, with the balance split nearly evenly between the Americas and Asia.

"We're looking for sustainability and wider contributions. For us, it's not about growth for growth's sake. We chart our own path ... I don't go to Vietnam or China or Korea. If you want fast growth, you go to China."

Goodhall was leaving on a recruiting trip to Mexico the day after our interview.

Principal Russell Gordon says Mount Maunganui College last year saw international fee revenues of $380,000 last year, which allows for building maintenance and increased staffing to ensure a ratio of no more than 26 students per teacher.

He says he doesn't focus on income, but instead on something a father told him during a recruiting trip to Europe.

"From one dad to another, he said, 'Look after my girl.' I take that it's a significant financial investment, but these kids will be true citizens of the world with no fear. And I don't know that you can put a price on that."

Back to our Italians

I messaged our Italian student's mum, Alessandra Boletti, to ask whether sending her daughter to live with us in Papamoa and attend Mount College was worthwhile.

She replied, "The experience abroad for Sofia has been extremely positive. She matured a lot and she got an open minded view that only this kind of experience can offer. With our great satisfaction she's become a real citizen of the world."

Sofia wrote she not only learned a new language, she also learned how to live without her family and became more responsible.

"I expected a lot from my exchange year because I wanted to live a different life from mine, but I couldn't be happier and more satisfied. My exchange year taught me how to live life."

'Our Italian' will return to visit us for three weeks in August. Benvenuto a casa. Haere mai. Welcome home. ​