God Opens Doors for One Alumna in New Zealand

by Rebecca Southwick, ’14

Trista VanBerkum, ’11, wasn’t expecting that her semester-long sojourn in New Zealand would lead to her someday moving there. But in this modern-day fairy tale, instead of the prince finding the princess, it is she who travels across the world to find love and adventure.

When forced to choose between spending a month in South Africa or going with a more affordable study-abroad option, she picked the latter: a semester in New Zealand. Having spent nearly her entire life in quaint Mount Vernon, Wash., this Washington State Dairy Princess (Washington State Dairy Ambassador, actually – the title’s name changed in 2006) didn’t know what lay ahead. She certainly couldn’t know that it would change her life – in the form of Calum Burn.

In addition to her communication internship and three business classes at Massey University’s campus in Palmerston North, VanBerkum made an instantaneous group of New Zealand friends – one of whom was Burn. Neither VanBerkum nor Burn were interested in the party scene that many of their friends enjoyed. “So we chatted a lot,” VanBerkum says. “He could tell that I was different and wanted to know why.”

At first, Burn was skeptical of the Christian faith that was such an integral part of VanBerkum’s life. But after numerous heated debates over coffee and multiple visits to half a dozen different churches, he came to share VanBerkum’s love for God. For VanBerkum, “it has been a neat opportunity, a huge honor and very humbling to be walking with him through that process.”

After five months, VanBerkum’s semester abroad came to a close. “Around the time I left, we decided to go ahead and give dating a shot,” she says.

Fast-forward three years. Burn and VanBerkum had been dating long-distance since November 2009. It was time for a change.

Because Burn had just obtained his New Zealand pilot’s license, he was unable to drop everything and move to another country. So VanBerkum did. After living in the same town for 18 years and attending the same school from preschool to 12th grade before attending Whitworth, which was still in the same state, VanBerkum left her family and friends to travel across the world and begin a new life.

Faith in God was central to her decision to move to New Zealand. After abundant prayer, VanBerkum says that she received no clear assurance that it was God’s call for her to make the move. “But I received a word that said: ‘this is your choice and I will bless you no matter what decision you make,’” she says.

She adds, “I think that’s a beautiful part about the Christian faith. That it is rooted in the idea that God gives us a choice.” It also makes the decision difficult, however. “I can’t even blame it on God,” she says with a laugh. “I can’t even say, ‘God made me come out here.’ It was definitely a choice.”

She also asserts that “God has certainly opened up the doors for me here.” Doors opened regarding a place to live – with friends of Burn – and a job – a position in her landlord’s company.

“Moving out to New Zealand has been a pretty big stretch for me,” VanBerkum says. “I grew up on a tiny dairy farm in tiny Mount Vernon, Wash. My dad has eight brothers and sisters, and my mom has three brothers and sisters, and they’re all within about a two- to four-hour radius. So when Christmas comes around, everyone’s there.”  Leaving such a close-knit familial community was not easy. VanBerkum admits that even though “it’s a really big adventure, there’s a time when the adventure stops being an adventure and it becomes very lonely.”

But the loneliness isn’t the end of the story. VanBerkum adds, “There are certainly times when moving out here has resulted in tears, and there have been times where it has been an absolute joy.”

These times include wine tasting in Hawkes Bay, camping along Surf Highway 45, wakeboarding on Lake Taupo, and flying over Marlborough Sounds. “Since moving to New Zealand, I have made it a goal to take advantage of as many opportunities as I can to see and experience this beautiful country,” VanBerkum says. A tourist would have to pay thousands of dollars for such an experience, whereas she now reaps the benefits of being a local.  

She has also forged some meaningful friendships. “The amount that I have learned from the people that are here is absolutely instrumental in shaping me,” she says.

One lesson she’s learned from the New Zealanders, or “Kiwis,” as they are often called, is how to be hardworking while also knowing how to relax. “Kiwis are really good at working to live rather than living to work,” VanBerkum says. For example, most businesses and schools combine the Christmas and summer holiday seasons, enabling families to travel or go camping. “It is almost as if the country shuts down for three weeks!” she says.

In addition, she’s been forced to acquire, or at least tolerate, the Kiwis’ habit of merciless teasing. “Learning to laugh at myself, not take things personally and throw in a few jabs every now and then is essential to keeping up in conversation,” she says.

Though the adventure continues, it is becoming less foreign and unknown for VanBerkum. “I feel like this is becoming home,” she says.  

What does the future hold for VanBerkum? Her immediate goal is to make it through Christmas away from her home and family. This April, when her visa expires, she intends to reapply for a new visa. Because her ticket to New Zealand had to be round-trip, she is scheduled to fly home in April. And after that? Anything is possible.

For Burn, who recently earned a degree in Aviation Management and a commercial pilot’s license, his dream is “to fly little planes in Africa, to fly little planes in Alaska [and] to live in adventure,” VanBerkum says. “I could very well end up anywhere in the world following this man.”

Taking it month by month, VanBerkum is waiting to discover what the future will bring and as she says, “to see if I’m willing to be a nomad for the rest of my life.” So, for this adventuresome princess from Mount Vernon, the rest of the story remains unwritten. We can only anticipate hearing the end. “I can’t wait to tell you,” VanBerkum says.