My name is Brandon Vanlandingham, and I’m a Gilman Alumni Ambassador from Mississippi State University. In the spring of 2020, I was awarded the opportunity to study abroad at the University of Canterbury (UC) in Christchurch, New Zealand where I subsequently rode out the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic through the late summer. The lockdown forced its own set of challenges that compounded the stresses of spending six months 8,000 miles away from home. Classes transitioned to online formats, local attractions closed their doors, and the unmatched natural beauty offered by my host country became inaccessible as the government launched communities into Level 4 lockdowns nationwide. I felt as if COVID was a middle school bully stealing my lunch money as every motive I had for traveling to New Zealand was being stolen from me – well… almost. The one diamond in the rough that remained to retain my sanity proved to be the people that surrounded me throughout the experience. The most notable and lasting relationship I made while abroad, though, has to be my favorite Aussie – Tommi Siitonen.
Tommi is from Perth in Western Australia and came to UC as an international student studying product design. I met him at a get-together hosted by one of my flat-mates in which Tommi and I were the only two not a part of Frontiers Abroad, a program designed for geology and environmental science students. From our first interaction, we immediately bonded over our shared love for cooking, similar music tastes, and unruly sarcasm that comprised the majority of our conversation. Throughout my time in New Zealand, Tommi and I shared an innumerable amount of memories ranging from road-trips in our forest green ’99 Outback named Sadie, to long nights of Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. on the Switch. If I had to define our relationship in one memory, though, it would be our weekly tradition of trekking out to Karaoke night at our local Irish bar, The Craic. Many late nights were spent belting the lyrics to “I Wanna Be” by The Proclaimers while surrounded by the rest of our study abroad crew singing along with us, and in those moments, a lifelong friendship was created. As I have sat and reflected on the memories we shared during my time abroad, the lessons Tommi brought to me have become apparent as common themes that came to largely define much of my time abroad.
Some things that Tommi taught me, or tried to teach me in most cases, were beyond trivial, like the “correct” way to slice a tomato. Other things like how to drive a manual transmission vehicle proved to be incredibly practical. But above all, Tommi’s sensible attitude and respect for order are the aspects of his personality that continue to impact me over a year since my return to the United States. Although the pandemic we endured together proved trying at times, my friendship with Tommi was crucial in navigating New Zealand’s lockdown protocols. As someone who was much more familiar with the country’s regulations, Tommi acted as a voice of reason providing clarity and context while maintaining an edgy sense of humor that would cut through my shell like butter. Eventually, as reality began to set in, my attitude transformed into one of understanding and appreciation of New Zealand’s governance, but also one that extended into becoming more well-rounded in my appreciation for other individuals’ methodologies and mindsets.
Tommi and I’s bond is one that I cherish most from my time abroad, and he will undoubtedly be the first person I contact the next time I visit that wacky world down under. Somehow throughout countless snarky remarks and two months of lockdown living, he became one of my closest friends and someone I still keep in regular contact with. When my mind zooms out, I can’t help but be completely baffled by the fact that I made a best friend on the other side of the globe. It’s an experience that I will forever be grateful for and especially appreciative to the Gilman Program for their role in materializing it.