debbie sidelinger '86

 

forward, down under

%516%left%Kia Ora.

It's a greeting Debbie Sidelinger '86 learned when she first began working for New Zealand's Ministry of Maori Development in Wellington, New Zealand. As a Web architect for the government agency, Sidelinger had to quickly learn the language and culture of the Maori, New Zealand's indigenous people. Even the name of her department, Te Puni Kokiri, is Maori: it means "the way forward."

"When I went in, I knew very little," Sidelinger said in a café in Wellington. But with language classes and the help of her colleagues, she gained enough knowledge of the culture to act as Web architect, responsible for all Web-based projects.

She now helps her department fulfill its role as a liaison between the government and the Maori (pronounced MOU-ree). "I love the fact that I'm able to get information out to Maori," she said. While online communication is increasingly important, hard copies are still essential since some Maori people live in rural areas with no Internet connection.

Unlike most of her colleagues, almost three quarters of whom are Maori, Sidelinger said she doesn't have the conflict of having two loyalties,one to her tribe and another to the government. Instead, she brings a different, more neutral perspective, she said.

"I work in an organization where I'm the minority."

The story of how this native of small-town Burnham, Maine, ended up in New Zealand traces back to her junior year at Colby, when she studied at Oxford. "The experience of going abroad my junior year and studying certainly opened me up to different cultures," she said.

%517%right%After graduating from Colby with an English degree, Sidelinger returned to London, where she lived for several years and met her now-husband, Michael Brown, a New Zealander. In 1990 she moved to New Zealand with Michael and they married. She had never before set foot in the country. "It was a bit of a shock coming from a very large city to Wellington," she said. The capital of New Zealand and one of the country's larger cities, Wellington has only about 160,000 people.

Sidelinger studied as a librarian at Victoria University in Wellington and later earned a master's in communication. She then worked as a librarian for several years before joining TPK, a job she said she thoroughly enjoys. She immediately noticed the emphasis on family values amongst her Maori colleagues. It's not uncommon for employees to bring their children to work, she said.

With its beautiful scenery, New Zealand is a fitting place for Sidelinger to practice one of her hobbies: photography. But she still misses the Maine snow, she said. While it snows on the country's South Island during the winter months, Wellington sees only rain.
"I miss having four distinct seasons," she said. And because New Zealand's seasons are opposite to those in the States, Sidelinger hasn't seen a white Christmas in years. "I can't get used to having Christmas in the summer. It never feels quite right."

Would she consider moving back to the States?

"We've talked about going back," she said. "[But] we're just so settled."

Her two boys, aged 2 and 6, have both New Zealand and U.S. citizenship, but they have yet to visit the States. Sidelinger said she is hoping to take her older son, Matthew, on a trip to Maine, maybe next year. And in the long run, she said, "I have visions of Matthew going to Colby."

,Alexis Grant '03