Thursday, November 18, 2010

Dirty Little Secrets...


It’s 10:00 am on a Monday morning and I am on the tenth floor of an office building in downtown Auckland. The tenth floor is home to IEP (International Exchange Programs) in New Zealand. In the lobby are about thirty foreigners. Like most of the people here, I am waiting for the Work New Zealand orientation. Before I continue, I should tell you how I got here.

About eight months ago, Heather and I, your humble founders of Dirty Hippies, decided that we want to live abroad. In the end, it came down to two countries: Argentina and New Zealand. After researching visas and working holiday programs it was clear that New Zealand was the right destination for us. Since I am over the age of thirty I had no choice but to join an organization called BUNAC to obtain my visa. Heather, who is under 30, could have done it a few different ways, and decided not to use any agencies, and to get her visa for free. BUNAC cost me about 530 USD, plus their mandatory health insurance. I paid the fees, totaling nearly 1000 USD and all the while I thought that I had overpaid; I thought that I would get my visa from this organization and that would be that, our relationship would end there.

Over the next few months I became more and more impressed by BUNAC. The application process was a breeze and each time I called with a question, the staff answered everything, and even seemed to remember me. With hardly any effort of my own, I was issued my Working Holiday Visa and sent an information packet in the mail. I was told to go the IEP office in Auckland, upon my arrival. Heather and I were now ready to head to New Zealand, completely on our own, not knowing anyone.

We arrived in Auckland on a Saturday morning. BUNAC had arranged our transportation from the airport and the first two nights in a hostel, with free breakfast. In my head, I subtracted the cost of the transportation and hostel and sarcastically thought, “Okay, I only spent about $500 for my visa.”

Monday morning was orientation at IEP. I stood in the lobby with those thirty other backpackers, until we were called into a room. During the two-hour orientation we were shown videos, slides, and took a virtual tour of New Zealand. We were also assisted in setting up important bank and tax accounts, given resources to find housing and setup our phones, and loads of other practical information. There was also time set aside for us travelers to get to know one another, and IEP told us about nights designated for members to meet up at a pub or at the IEP office for a movie, which would further introduce us to our peers and the New Zealand lifestyle.

Before orientation was over, IEP shared with us everything they do as an organization. Their services include but are not limited to: travel bookings, work mentoring, an online community with country-wide events and job listings, one-on-one counseling, help formatting your CV (resume), free internet at the office with printing capabilities, incoming mail forwarding, luggage storage, 24 hour emergency phone line… As the list of services kept coming I was left with only one thought: Maybe I underpaid IEP for my Working Holiday? Heather even started to wish she had gone through IEP, rather than doing it all on her own.

Needless to say, Heather and I were so impressed with IEP that we wanted to do a piece on them for DIRTY HIPPIES. Bex Ghilchrist, Director of IEP, was more than happy to sit down with us and discuss the inner workings of the company.

Bex started with some background information on the working holiday programs. BUNAC, she informed, first came on the scene in 1962, as a way for young UK and US residents to swap countries for a year and have an “overseas experience”. The beauty of BUNAC was that it gave participants the ability to gain employment, really letting them feel what it’s like to live in a foreign country. As the years went on, BUNAC and working holiday programs grew in popularity. A result of that growth, IEP New Zealand started in 1997. The non-profit organization began as a small working holiday program, but today has over 3,000 participants from eighteen partner organizations, such as BUNAC. Bex has been at IEP since the beginning, giving support to travelers on Working Holiday Visas.

Looking after those 3,000 participants, surprisingly, are only ten employees. The IEP staff are a huge part of what makes the organization successful. They are an international, vibrant bunch, made up of foreigners, locals, bungy jumpers, mountain bikers, and even a former member of the circus. The IEP employees are not only fun, but also a caring, friendly and knowledgeable bunch. “Each employee has had his own O.E. (Overseas Experience), which helps the staff relate to the participants,” explained Bex. “The staff work hard and believe in one simple principle: A working holiday is the best education. And when it comes to making participants’ experience the best it can be, IEP follows an equally simple motto: Whatever it takes.

After witnessing the close relationship between Bex and her IEP staff, Heather and I were intrigued to know about IEP’s relationship with the New Zealand government, local businesses, and IEP members. First off, Bex told us that IEP’s relationship with the government is a really good one. In the beginning when it came down to working with the New Zealand government, IEP gave them a straightforward proposal and the government gave IEP everything they had asked for (including the age limit of 35 for IEP participants, extending the governments’ own age limit of 30, which is why I’m able to be here today.)

Thanks to IEP, some of the businesses in New Zealand don’t have to look too hard to find employees. Quite often, local businesses will contact IEP with seasonal, part-time, and full-time gigs. All IEP participants have to do is go on the IEP website and look under job listings. It’s that simple. IEP also offers special discounts for its participants through their relationship with local hostels, tour companies, car rental agencies, extreme sports companies––the list goes on and on. Since IEP does so much for its participants, the participants feel close to IEP, often spending hours at the office in a single day.

The relationship between IEP and its participants is no doubt a strong one. No better was that relationship displayed than the recent Canterbury Earthquake. After the quake struck, Bex and her team were the first line of communication between participants and their families abroad. Fortunately, no participants were injured, but the first few hours of not knowing were very emotional ones for Bex and her crew. Just recalling the incident brought tears to Bex’s eyes. A large part of IEP’s role is just being there to support its participants. Bex recalled a member from Germany who was having a hard time adjusting, so she asked one of her newest employees, who also hadn’t quite adjusted yet, to speak with her. In the end, that’s all it took for this girl; she just needed someone to relate to.

Since starting with IEP in 1997, Bex has seen it all. Watching the participants come to New Zealand and grow as individuals is a part of her job that never seems to get old. “You seem like the nurturing parent who would tell their kid to go bungy jump off a bridge,” Heather remarked to Bex. Bex then explained how she tries to encourage members to partake in something they wouldn’t normally consider at home in their everyday lives. For example, WOOFING (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) is very popular with IEP members. While this work doesn’t pay, it does give members free room and board, food, and an opportunity to live with Kiwi families on their cattle, dairy, vegetable farms, and vineyards.

Heather and I ended the interview by asking Bex about the future of IEP. Bex talked modestly of expansion to other countries and some more marketing, but in general, she is happy with the organization at its current state. “It’s nice when you are a non-profit and not constantly thinking about the bottom line. We don’t need to make millions. Keeping IEP small is what allows us to focus solely on the betterment of the organization.” Makes sense to us. “However,” Bex added, “It would help if more people knew about IEP and the opportunity it gives to those wanting an education like the one we support.” Heather and I agreed and promised to do our part.

If you are interested in a Working Holiday in New Zealand, check out IEP at If you have any questions about our experience, feel free to contact Dirty Hippies at

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