Ella & Vegard: Two Norwegian sports stars taking Whakatane by storm

"“I recommend other international students to get involved in a sport as soon as possible. It stops you from getting homesick.” - Vegard"
Ella & Vegard

Ella & Vegard: Two Norwegian sports stars taking Whakatane by storm

Norway and New Zealand – they are two distinct countries on opposite hemispheres, but parallels can be drawn. They both have similar population sizes and boast some of the world’s best scenery, complete with fjords, glaciers and gorgeous national parks.

Despite the similarities, when you’re a teenager who has spent your childhood in Norway, moving to New Zealand without your family for an entire school year is a bold move.

And yet that’s exactly what two exceptional Norwegian high school students did: Ella Aasheim and Vegard Gundersen have been living and studying in Whakatane. Reserved, kind and humble, Ella and Vegard have taken culture, language and climate changes in their stride, excelling at life in the Bay and reveling in the chance to have a completely new experience at such a young age.

Education Tauranga got the opportunity to interview these two impressive students and hear about their transition into life down under.


Ella and Vegard are from two distinct parts of Norway: Ella comes from Røros, one of Europe’s oldest towns home to 5000 people. Røros’s ability to hold onto its historic character and charm from the 1600s has seen it recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site. Vegard comes from a city of 60,000 to the south called Asker, not far from Oslo and a stone’s throw from some of the country’s famous fjords.

Both Ella and Vegard agree that life was different in Norway and the most notable change is the weather. In a word, Norway is COLD! Both students are used to winters with temperatures averaging around minus five to ten. For Ella, the record winter’s day was -52 C. Norway has a real, Arctic winter where snow piles waist high, so being greeted by Tauranga’s mild, snowless winter when they arrived in July was a shock.


It’s brave of any seventeen-year-old to travel to the other side of the world for nine months, but Ella’s story is especially unique. Ella is a competitive dog sled racer, or dogmusher as they call it in Norway.

“I have eight huskies at home that I have trained from puppies. They’re my best friends! I started racing my own sled at three or four years old. It’s what I do in my free time.” -Ella

She competes on a national level, taking her dogs for 200km races in the snowy northern winters. Feeding, caring for and training her dogs are the most important thing in her life. Despite having a passion so distinct to Norway, Ella boldly moved to a coastal city with no snow – and no dogmushing – to experience a totally different way of life.


Back in Norway, Vegard is an athlete in his own right as well. He has been an avid soccer player as far back as he can remember and is highly involved in cross country skiing during winter.

In Whakatane, Vegard has continued playing soccer, while adding cross country to his repertoire. In fact, he was his school’s senior Cross-Country champion in October last year.

“I’ve always liked to run, but it’s not my main sport,” Vegard humbly says of his win last month.


As a dog sled racer and a soccer player, it’s no surprise that getting involved in sport during their time in Whakatane was a priority for these students. Being keen to try sport has not only kept them busy and active, but it has also helped them make friends, ward off homesickness and fit into life in their new homes.

“I recommend other international students to get involved in a sport as soon as possible. It stops you from getting homesick.” – Vegard

“I started soccer last week and play field hockey, which are both new sports to me.” – Ella


Both Ella and Vegard moved to Whakatane just in time to start term three at Whakatane High School. Ella is staying until April while Vegard opted to stay for the whole year. They each individually chose New Zealand as their study abroad locale because of the country’s reputation for beautiful natural scenery and an outdoors, active lifestyle.

There are so many differences between Whakatane and Norway that a little culture shock is to be expected, but these two stellar students have taken it all in their stride.

“I enjoy it here. It’s a very laid back, relaxed pace of life.” – Vegard

“I love how warm it is!” – Ella

At Whakatane High School, both Ella and Vegard are enjoying physical education and outdoor education classes, as well as furthering their studies in foreign languages, with Ella taking Spanish and Vegard studying German.

Their English, which every Norwegian starts studying at a young age, has improved dramatically by being immersed in an English-speaking school and home life. They have even taken on some Kiwi slang and pronunciations!


A smile creeps onto both students’ faces when they describe an entirely new sport that they’ve taken up in New Zealand: surfing.

“Surfing is pretty fun! You need good balance.” – Ella

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to try before I came here. I will miss surfing when I go back home.” – Vegard

Coming from Norway where the nearby sea is frigid and lacking in surf, neither student had tried surfing before, yet unsurprisingly for these adaptable athletes, both managed to catch a wave quickly. Ella and Vegard appreciate how lucky they are to live in Whakatane, one of New Zealand’s sunniest spots where they can frequently make the most of the surf at nearby Ohope Beach.


Both Ella and Vegard are so pleased that they came to study abroad in New Zealand, but feel that by the time their studies here are up, they will be ready to go home. Vegard misses his friends back home, Ella dearly misses her dogs!

Ella and Vegard also agree that pale bread in New Zealand is not the same as the hearty, dark Nordic breads that they were used to back home. They also miss some Norwegian staples, like fresh salmon and other types of fish unfamiliar to our waters. Vegard, luckily, has found a Kiwi treat that he’s become quite fond of: pineapple lumps!


Being placed with a local Kiwi host family has done wonders to help Ella and Vegard adjust to a new way of life and start speaking English regularly.

“My host family is very relaxed and nice, and I really like my German host sister too. She is one year younger than me and we get along really well.” – Ella

“My host mum is in the police; she works with students who have dropped out of school, helping them get back on track. I have a good connection with my host mum and brother, we get along well and I enjoy living there.” – Vegard

Along with experiencing life in Kiwi families, Ella and Vegard have had the opportunity to experience much of what New Zealand has to offer. They have been to Queenstown where they both skydived and Vegard bungee jumped. They have been scuba diving and mountain biking. They have been skiing at Mount Ruapehu and the school has an upcoming trip to the Tongariro Crossing that they are both excited about.

Director of International Students Sue Whale and Homestay Manager Wendy Smith have been a huge help when it comes to settling into a new culture and way of life and facilitating everything from host family placements to education to extra-curriculars to fun trips.


Ella and Vegard love Norway and feel deeply connected to their country, but they wanted to gain a broader experience and develop their independence.

“I have a feeling of accomplishment having come here. I have more confidence in myself.”  – Vegard

“I feel more independent and more open to new things.” – Ella

The experience of studying in New Zealand has set them up for a lifelong love of travel and they are both keen to see more of the world in the future, possibly even studying abroad again during university.


“Just be open to everything. Be ready to try anything new and be active.” – Vegard

“A student exchange is a unique experience and a great way to experience a new culture. I recommend giving it a go.” – Ella