Unquiet Women Himasha Gunasekara: On being in magical Aotearoa

Inspired by Max Adam’s original work, Unquiet Women, through this series Dr Hafsa Ahmed aims to share narratives of remarkable women who immigrated to New Zealand. These stories are rarely told, but each one is unique. Hafsa hopes these stories will bring Asia closer to New Zealand by enabling us to see through the eyes of others and nurturing connections.

In the tenth - and final - piece of the Unquiet Women series, she shares Himasha Gunasekara's story.

“I love seasons because that is something that I didn’t have growing up in Sri Lanka.” 

“As a kid, I read many books that are written by overseas authors, and they would often write about the different seasons - spring, winter, which I haven't experienced at all, living in a tropical country. So, suddenly when you come here, you experience these [and] that is something that I love; it is so magical for me” – there is a twinkle in her eye as Himasha shares what she loves about Aotearoa.  

Himasha arrived at the end of 2019 – just a few months before the country shut its borders - to pursue a PhD at the University of Canterbury, examining how Instagram can be used as an informal learning environment for tertiary-level design students.  

She was relieved when she landed – between visa processes and finding placements, it had taken her a year to get to this point.   

PhD candidate Himasha Gunasekara arrived in Aotearoa at the end of 2019, only a few months before Covid shut the country's borders. Image: Supplied

Her career in Sri Lanka 

Back in Sri Lanka, Himasha had a Bachelor in Textile Design and had been working in the industry for a few years. But her passion was academia, so she got a job as a temporary lecturer – it didn’t pay much, but she loved teaching.  

Before long, she was offered a permanent lecturer role and to continue her professional development, she was doing a Master of Philosophy and wanted to do a PhD.  

“It is always nice to have a doctorate. So, I was thinking, ‘OK, time for me to pursue that dream’.”  

However, internal politics meant other, more established academics would get the opportunity first to go overseas to pursue further qualifications – “I was at the end of the line because I was so young and a new staff member.”  

Himasha planned to go to the University of Queensland in Australia, but she faced issues getting her leave approved – “I struggled a lot.”  

She speaks about these experiences with disappointment, but she also gathered courage in those moments – “I thought I should leave for my PhD at this point of my life so I decided to quit my teaching job,” she says, “the one occupation that I love so much - I sacrificed that for my PhD.” 

She set her sights on Queensland but had to rethink her journey when she found the fees too expensive. 

“I was looking for scholarships, but unfortunately, I couldn't get a scholarship from the [University of Queensland]. Then I decided I will come to New Zealand because New Zealand offered domestic fees for international PhD students, which I could afford at that time. So, I came to New Zealand in 2019. And then it was a whole different story.”  

Himasha got confirmation of her PhD in September 2020 and is on track to finish soon. Image: Supplied

Arriving in Aotearoa 

The first few weeks were a struggle – as with any other international student. She recalls taking the bus to the university. 

“Sometimes even if you get on a bus, it goes round and round and round. It took me an hour to get to my destination. But when you check out the Google map, it was just a kilometre. So, I decided I could walk there. 

“In the early days, I walked a lot, always had my phone in my hand and checked Google maps.”  

And then, thanks to her supportive PhD supervisors, she discovered the joy of cycling – “I felt so empowered by having a bicycle because I could cut down my travelling time, like almost half and it really helped me to explore more - that was fun.” 

But little did Himasha know that her journey in Aotearoa was going to get more exciting. “The real story starts after my husband came here.”  

Within a month after her husband arrived, they were expecting their first child. “We didn't know what to do, it wasn’t something that we had planned for - and it was the beginning of the pandemic!”  

The two had many conversations about what they should do and Himasha made a decision – “I'm going to do this.” 

“I made all these sacrifices; I gave up my job, we made a lot of changes to our lives, we came out of our comfort zone all the way, a few thousand miles, just to do this PhD. So why should I go back?”  

She took it one step at a time and in September 2020 she got confirmation of her PhD, with her baby arriving in November 2020.  

Himasha’s challenges 

I wanted to know more about Himasha’s time here, particularly as an international student – what were some of the challenges she faced.  

“Of course, separation was one of the biggest challenges. I came all alone, and it was so harsh that me and my husband could not come together. If he couldn't have come, it would have been a bit different.”  

The loneliness forced Himasha to focus on other things in her initial days – finding friends and socialising. She could not focus on her studies – “not having anyone close by to share what I feel. A PhD, it's a long journey and it's stressful, especially early days. You need a lot of support.”  

Another challenge was understanding the New Zealand accent – she’d often ask people to repeat themselves, which was uncomfortable. But what she missed the most, like all international students and immigrants, were the three Fs – family, friends and food.  

Alongside these challenges however, Himasha found time to get to know people through events and workshops – it was through one of these that she met Sally Carlton from Steudaemonia. 

Steudaemonia is a radio show and podcast on Plains FM made by, for, and about international students studying and living in Canterbury and Carlton happened to be looking for students to take part. 

Himasha was interested and stopped by the Plains FM radio station. Since then, she’s had exciting opportunities through the show – including a chance to interview Sri Lankan born-Member of Parliament Vanushi Walters for an episode.  

I asked her what advice she would give to anyone coming to New Zealand and she said “the first thing I would say is that you need to come with an open mind because you’re coming to a whole different country with a whole different set of people with different attitudes - you need to open yourself a bit and respect what they already have in their cultures. Before you spend what you bring from your culture, you need to respect what they have.”  

There’s a lot that has happened in Himasha’s life since she came to Aotearoa and as we concluded, I asked her how she would describe life here. 

“Life here, it's peaceful. People don't judge you based on what you wear or what kind of car you use, or where you live. You don't have to spend a lot to be happy. Life is simple - it's minimal. That is what I love about New Zealand.”  

 - Asia Media Centre