OTAGO

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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.

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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.

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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?

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The University of Otago Alumni Magazine ran the following article in its November, 2014, edition based on a staff writer’s interview with me:

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Supporting Otago:  Allan Portis

Even though Allan Portis is a great supporter of the modern University of Otago, part of him remains nostalgic for the way he was able to both study and learn his profession hands-on.

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Allan Portis: “I liked it so much I stayed on and studied for an arts degree as well”.

Today Allan Portis is a mainstay of Otago’s alumni group in Canada, where he made his home back in the 1970s while forging a highly successful career with The Bank of Nova Scotia.

His own experience of gaining accounting qualifications in the 1960s was quite different to that of today’s commerce students.

Growing up in the tiny community of Pukeuri, near Oamaru, both he and his twin brother wanted to be accountants. That opportunity came through the Dunedin firm Barr, Burgess & Stewart – the present day PricewaterhouseCoopers.

“In those days when you did accounting you worked for an accounting firm. The office was very structured. You sat at the front and then the next year you moved back. People were at various stages of accounting and typically, in the fourth year, they took a year off and did it full time – which is what I did. I liked it so much I stayed on and studied for an arts degree as well!”

Study would start with an 8am lecture before work. There would be another lecture at 5pm after which he would go home, have dinner, head down to the library and study until 11.

“What did I take away from that? Hard work – no fooling around!” he laughs. “It actually was a wonderful thing. You had the partners there as role models and they taught part-time at the University so there was this real link between the University, work and study.”

During his University holidays he would return to Pukeuri and its freezing works. “It was dirty monotonous work, but it gave me an extra incentive to get an education.”

Like many young New Zealanders Portis felt the pull of the big OE. He had noticed that the young accountants who went to the UK, Australia and the States always came home, but the ones who went to Canada stayed. “So I thought there must be something in this.”

After a stint in Melbourne with accountants Arthur Andersen & Co he joined their Vancouver office, before going on to the University of Western Ontario’s Graduate School of Business in London, Ontario, where he gained an MBA. In 1975 he joined The Bank of Nova Scotia, beginning a 30-year career which saw him rise to become vice-president in its International Corporate Risk Management Division.

When Portis retired in 2005 he wanted to keep busy.

“I looked around and said: What got me here? I realised I owed a great deal to my New Zealand education.”

He is actively involved in supporting Waitaki Boys’ High School and getting involved with Otago alumni was another way he could give back.

Initially he served on the Board of the Alumni of the University of Otago in America Inc. but eventually joined forces with the now late Brian Merrilees, another alumnus from Toronto, to develop something with a more Canadian flavour.

Initially they had informal gatherings at a pub over pizza and beer. “The idea was to keep it informal and rely on Alison Finigan and her colleagues in the Alumni Office to handle our membership lists, donations and communications.”

They eventually linked up with Otago’s International Exchange Programme, which encourages third- or fourth-year students to travel overseas for a semester or two.

About 30 students a year head for Canada so they fund up to four Canadian Travel Awards of $NZ2,000 each. So far 10 recipients over the last four years have studied at universities across Canada.

“Canada has a lot to offer on the organisational, cultural and interpersonal side of things and it is a good place for students to gain life experience,” he says.

He and his wife Santa also get involved by welcoming and hosting many Otago students when they first arrive.

The Dunedin connection remains strong and they have purchased a house in Dunedin where they live several months a year.

Portis also keeps busy writing a blog, with sensible management of money and giving back as key themes.

“Whether it’s health, wealth or relationships, a lot of folk get to retirement and say, ‘I wish I’d done it differently’,” he observes.

“The rules are fairly simple. It is about establishing the proper habits especially at a young age – and they say any habit can be changed in 21 days.”