Latvian volleyballer thrives in new country

Three months ago, she was home in Latvia. Now, sixteen-year-old Greta Stjade is living on the opposite side of the world. Greta never imagined that one day she would be in New Zealand. Her original plan would have kept her a little closer to home as she had hoped to go to France for an […]

Three months ago, she was home in Latvia. Now, sixteen-year-old Greta Stjade is living on the opposite side of the world.

Greta never imagined that one day she would be in New Zealand. Her original plan would have kept her a little closer to home as she had hoped to go to France for an exchange year. Instead, her dad started looking around for other options and found her an opportunity with Nayland College.

“When my coach said New Zealand I was like ‘yeah, of course!’” she said. “My mum was like ‘go on, you’re packing your bags.’ I mean New Zealand, that’s just insane. It’s so far away and it’s so expensive to go here. New Zealand is like every Latvian’s dream.”

As part of the scholarship Nayland College has offered her, the keen volleyballer will be staying in Nelson until next April. She’s living with her coach Brendon Crichton and his family – his wife Fiona and two daughters Brooklyn and Chloe, both Year 11s at Nayland.

Greta has been playing volleyball ever since she gave up gymnastics six years ago and is extremely happy with her choice. “I was a gymnast, but I got really bored in my classes,” she said. “We wanted me to play a team sport, so I found volleyball. Volleyball is just such a dynamic sport, I guess? You never really know what’s gonna happen, but gymnastics is always the same.”

Since Greta’s arrival, she and her volleyball team have had two tournaments – Tasman Championships and Nationals. They won the first (the first Nayland team to do so since 2006). Unfortunately, the day before Nationals she sprained her ankle and wasn’t able to play. However, she will be playing at IPC Regionals in June, as well as playing club this winter.

Though she certainly excels at volleyball, Greta doesn’t plan on making a career out of it. Instead, she wants to go to university and see where that takes her. “I want to get a scholarship to America,” she said. “It is [ambitious], but I feel like I can do it.”

Although Greta has only learnt English for five years – her third language after Latvian and French – she has no problems with fitting in at Nayland and making friends. She says there’s no room to be timid. “Here, if you want to get friends you’ve got to really be out there. You can’t really be shy – I used to be so shy. I feel like I’ve changed.”

The contrast in people’s attitudes here compared to Latvia is something that has really surprised Greta. “People are kinder, more relaxed, more open-minded”, she said. “If I walk down the street, people just smile at you, right? In Latvia, we wouldn’t say hello, we wouldn’t even smile.”

Nayland College is also strikingly different to Greta’s former school. “I feel like school work here is so much easier – in a good way,” she said. “In Latvia, we have so much homework we don’t really have time for doing other things.” The characters of Nayland’s teachers were also a surprise. “Teachers are kinder over here, they actually want you to succeed. They’re actually so lenient, so nice. In Latvia, I was actually afraid of some of my teachers, because they yell at you.” Perhaps we Nayland students have it better than we thought?

Another difference is our lunches. “I know it’s like a really small thing, but it’s just so different for me,” she said. “You prepare all your lunchboxes, but we eat hot meals… we have our own canteen, it’s much bigger, and you buy whatever you want, like rice, potatoes, whatever. [Here] you eat a lot of junk food too. But it’s not a bad thing, because I like junk food.”

Despite both the distance and the differences, Greta doesn’t miss home too terribly. “I don’t really miss my friends and family because we have FaceTime – I miss my cats though,” she laughed. “I haven’t been very homesick yet, just because everyone’s so nice. You don’t really have time to be homesick because everyone’s always talking to you.”

All in all, Greta is loving her time here and is definitely making the most of it. “I get to experience all this new culture, and practice my English, and play volleyball,” she said. “I just want to say thank you, to the school, and my coach, and my coach’s family, just for giving me this really awesome opportunity. Just a big thank you.”

By student reporter – Maya Jayasena