More than a job

When you discover that the students call her ‘Mama Africa’, and then you see that her office walls are almost completely papered over with photos of past graduates, you cannot doubt that Helen Corrigan’s role as ELTO Africa Programme Manager is so much more than ‘just a job’ to her.


A dairy farmer’s daughter from Matamata (she tells the students she comes from Hobbiton), Helen has lived and worked all over the world, speaks three European languages and is conversant in several Asian languages. Her experience and skills all come together in the role she describes as “one of the best I’ve ever had”, managing the English Language Training for Officials (ELTO) programme for African officials—as part of the contract Viclink holds with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT).


Helen works closely with Victoria’s English Language Institute (ELI)—who deliver the English language training—and is well supported by the Accent Learning team and by the Scholarships and Middle East and Africa divisions at MFAT.


MFAT chooses which African countries they wish to engage with, then invite applications for the ELTO programme—an intensive 10-week course which covers governance and diplomacy matters and, of course, English language training.


“The majority of Northern and Western Africa speak French, but English is the language of business and diplomacy,” says Helen. “When our graduates return to Africa, they are usually posted overseas as diplomats, so being able to speak English with real confidence is a huge help to them. They’ve also already experienced what it’s like to live in a Western country and how to cope with cold weather!”


Helen says that her role is to “make sure we give these students the most positive experience possible while they are here.” As with any pastoral care role, she says it involves a bit of everything, from booking flights and making sure they get to lectures, through to liaising with government departments, travelling with the group to showcase the best of New Zealand—and, of course, trouble-shooting.


“There have been lots of cases of lost keys, students taking the wrong bus, sea sickness and medical emergencies at night plus the inevitable homesickness. Then there was the Kaikoura earthquake which happened while a group was visiting Nelson—let’s just say I keep my mobile phone on 24/7 during the 10 weeks that an intake is here!” laughs Helen.


Helen is no stranger to living away from home herself, having lived in Japan for a year as an exchange student, later returning to work as an English language teacher before moving to London to work for the trading side of Japan Airlines. “I don’t think I spoke English once while I was at work there,” she says. “It really developed my ability to speak and write Japanese in a business context.”


So when she returned to New Zealand, it didn’t take long for someone to swoop on those skills.  “Fonterra were focused on growing New Zealand dairy in the Japanese market, so I helped them with trade negotiations and delegation hosting.”


Next, she set up Victoria International for Victoria University, before moving to Jakarta when her husband was transferred there. She was subsequently recruited by New Zealand Trade & Enterprise to be Trade Commissioner in Jakarta and, when they moved again—this time to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam—Helen worked for the New Zealand Trade Commissioner there on education projects.


So is there a flip-side to the job that she loves?


“Leaving them at the airport to return home is horrendous—there are always masses of tears on both sides,” she says. “But it’s all worth it. I had the privilege recently of watching one of our graduates from Togo open his country’s first embassy in South Africa. From the way he delivered such an amazing speech in English, I could see that everything he learned here had come together, and I felt incredibly emotional and proud.”


Helen says that the graduates leave here with an enormous gratitude to, and passion for, New Zealand. “They all keep in touch—with me and with each other—so together we’re growing this amazing international community that keeps the New Zealand flag flying.”


To contact Helen, email her, or phone her on 04 463 9685.