Australian High Commissioner to the Cook Islands, Phoebe Smith, left, with New Colombo Plan students Ella Ruland, Liam Clegg, and Ebony Gatto. 23090116
A scholarship programme sending Australian undergraduates to study in more than 40 locations across the Indo-Pacific region has returned to the Cook Islands after Covid-19 ground travel to a halt.
Liam Clegg, Ebony Gatto, and Ella Ruland make up the latest
wave of Australian university students to arrive in the Cook Islands on the New
Colombo Plan, an initiative started by the Australian Government in 2014 with
an aim of building knowledge and connections between the country and its
“There are thousands of Cook Islanders who go to Australia
to pursue education opportunities, this is a great way of encouraging the
two-way flow of students back to the Cook Islands,” says Phoebe Smith,
Australian High Commissioner to the Cook Islands.
“The New Colombo Plan is more than just a study programme.
“For scholars like these, it encourages students to immerse
themselves in the local community; to undertake internships and research; and
to build connections in the Cook Islands.”
Marine science is what interests the three arrivals, who are
being hosted by the University of the South Pacific (USP).
Clegg, a recent graduate of the University of Tasmania with
a Bachelor of Marine and Antarctic Science, landed in Rarotonga on July 11 to
begin studying towards a Bachelor of Arts majoring in marine management at USP.
He hopes to undertake an internship with the Cook Islands Ministry of Marine Resources (MMR).
“Looking for a change of pace, change of scenery, change of
weather – I found the Cook Islands,” Clegg says.
“The Ra’ui system here really caught my eye. I sort of
centred my programme around how that works and the importance of community
participation in marine protected area management.
“I’d heard the people were also fantastic, which has
definitely been proven since I moved.
“It’s been great fun so far.”
Gatto – a Deakin University student working towards a
Bachelor of Environmental Science (Wildlife and Conservation Biology) – started
her New Colombo Plan scholarship in Tahiti, French Polynesia, where she helped
a marine wildlife organisation with their identification efforts.
Gatto headed to India next to continue her study, and
finally the Cook Islands on August 8.
With whale migration as her area of interest, Gatto was
“very happy” to see humpback whales still swimming beyond the reef around
“I’ve only been here a few weeks, but everyone is so
friendly. The island is beautiful and I’m so keen to keep exploring and
Ruland, who also began her scholarship in Tahiti studying
French and interning at a dive shop before arriving in Rarotonga on July 15, is
doing a research-based Bachelor of Marine Science Honours programme studying
the humpback whale migration.
“Rarotonga is a really crucial migratory stopover for the
humpbacks,” Ruland, of Murdoch University, says.
“It’s been really beautiful to see them in great numbers
just off the shore. I’m lucky to be supported by Cook Islands Whale Research,
so I’ve been going out with them almost daily – whenever we get the chance, and
whenever the weather’s permitting.
“It’s also an amazing location for land-based surveys
because the reef is so close to shore.”
Ruland says she is “very grateful” to USP for hosting her as
an affliate researcher, and to MMR for their help with getting her research
permit and undertaking that research.
All three students expressed their gratitude to USP and MMR, with Clegg adding they were thankful to the Cook Islands community for “welcoming us with open arms and making our experience so warm and the move so seamless”.
Smith says it is “terrific” to see a new wave of New Colombo
Plan students to the country.
“Here in the Cook Islands, we’ve seen the programme develop
over the past few years. It’s been a bit impeded by Covid, so that’s why we’re
delighted to see students returning this year,” she says.
“The aim of the programme is to spark that interest for
students and give them a taste.
"I’m really delighted that we’ll actually be welcoming
another staff member [at the Australian High Commission] back to Rarotonga in a
few weeks, Tully Hambridge, who was here in 2018 as a New Colombo Plan student.
"I think that’s a great demonstration of the full
circle of the programme.”
USP Cook Islands campus director Dr Debbie Futter-Puati says
hosting the three Australian students was part of an “international education
plan” the campus had been developing for years.
The initiative kicked off with a three-week visit from a
linguistics and computer science assistant professor and nine students from Ivy
League research university Dartmouth College in the United States,
Alongside a Maori and Pacific senior lecturer from New
Zealand’s Auckland University, the academics produced audio and visual recordings
of traditional stories to document the Cook Islands Maori language in February
and March this year.
Futter-Puati says with Clegg, Gatto, and Ruland focussing on
marine science for their visit, they would benefit from the campus’ “great
connections” with MMR and National Environment Service.
“It’s brilliant that the Australian Government has funded
these scholarships,” she says.
“I think it’s just such a beautiful win-win situation for
our country and the Australian students coming and being part of our little
The USP Students’ Association is making sure the scholars
are feeling welcome and connected in the community, Futter-Puati says.