Since my wife Santa and I retired in 2005, we have gotten into the routine of taking mini vacations in cities where the University of Otago has hosted receptions – San Francisco, Washington, New York and Philadelphia in the US, as well as London England, Edmonton, Toronto, and my home town of Oamaru.
For a couple of years I served on the Board of the University of Otago in America Inc. – an organization set up by US Alumni to assist the University, but which is unfortunately subject to heavy legal and administrative requirements to comply with the US tax code. It soon became clear the arrangement was not suitable for Canadian Alumni so the late Brian Merrilees and I decided to try and set something up with a more Canadian flavour.
Brian was a retired French professor from the University of Toronto and I had spent my career in financial services, but our common bond was the deep gratitude we had for our Otago education. It allowed us to roam the world and practice our professions pretty much wherever we wanted. And we were particularly indebted to the people of New Zealand for funding our entire education at Otago – a far cry from the costs facing today’s students.
So with this in mind we kicked around some ideas to pay our good fortune forward. And as part of that, Alison Finigan, Head of Alumni Relations at the time, put us in touch with the folk running the University’s International Exchange Programme which encourages third or fourth year students to enrich their undergraduate experience by studying for a semester or two at overseas universities. About 30 students come to Canada each year and all have met quite rigorous academic and other standards set by the University.
So the upshot was we decided to fund three Canadian Travel Awards of NZ$2000 each and so far sixteen recipients over the last five years have studied at universities across Canada – University of British Columbia, University of Toronto, University of Western Ontario, York University, Queens University, McGill University, and Dalhousie – The geographical spread is not accidental, and with the help of like-minded Canadian Alumni we would like to greatly expand the awards in future years to take in more Canadian Universities and many more students.
Since exchange students pay tuition fees to their home university, the New Zealand government requires The University of Otago to show there is a balance between the number of inbound and outbound students. And with a present southbound surplus, anything we can do to encourage Otago students to participate will really help the university as well.
I’m happy to tell you the Canadian Tax People are much easier to deal with than the IRS. It turns out Otago is one of three New Zealand universities, along with Auckland and Victoria, to be listed by the Canada Revenue Agency as qualifying for Canadian tax deductions. So making a donation is as easy as going to the University’s website at https://secure-www.otago.ac.nz/alumni/donations/ and making a secure credit card payment in NZ$ designating the “Canadian Alumni Travel Award” category. The payment is handled by the University’s Cashier who will send you an immediate electronic Canadian tax receipt by email and you claim the Canadian $ equivalent of this on your Canadian tax return supported by a copy of your credit card bill. I’ve tested the system and it works really well.
The clear advantage of the arrangement is we do not need to tie up anyone in Canada with administrative duties since everything is handled directly by the Alumni relations people at The University of Otago. What we would like to see, though, is at least one Alumni Coordinator in each major Canadian city – not only to promote the Travel Awards but to help enrich the experience of all the Otago exchange students visiting their city.
BrIan’s wife Pat Merrilees, my wife Santa, and I have hosted newly arrived students for a few days and we were delighted to show them around Toronto before school started. It was great to see the students planning group trips to Montreal and Quebec, and arranging other cultural experiences. We have also hosted Otago Exchange students studying at Western University (my old Alma Mater The University of Western Ontario) to lunch, along with Kiwi professors teaching at Western. This fall we hosted Exchange Students to luncheons in Montreal and London Ontario. We enjoy the ocassions and the students appreciate the opportunity to connect with their Kiwi peers.
Mrs. Beverley and Dr. Chris Hoskins, two of our Alumni living in Edmonton Alberta graciously host an annual gathering of Alberta Alumni and visiting Otago Exchange Students at their home in conjunction with Alison Finnigan. Alison also hosts a similar annual gathering for Ontario Alumni at Hemmingway’s, the iconic Kiwi pub in Toronto’s Yorkville district owned by Martin McSkimming, a well known Otago Alumnus.
So I would like to encourage you to consider the Brian Merrilees Travel Awards which we’ve renamed in Brian’s memory. It’s a great way to acknowledge the value of our Otago education in a very tangible way. We are hopeful of harnessing the collective donations of the many Otago Alumni in Canada in order to put the Awards on a strong footing. We would, of course, also be delighted if you chose to donate to fund a full Award! After all what could be better than helping young Kiwis get a taste of Canada, the country we’ve come to know so well?
The University of Otago Alumni Magazine ran the following article in its November, 2014, edition based on a staff writer’s interview with me: