This time last year William Robertson was about halfway through a six-month stint studying at Shanghai University in China, something he says was an eye-opening experience, although the decision to go there was a last minute one.
He had earlier been on a three-week holiday to South East Asia, spending time in Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore, and was so taken by what he saw that he knew he had to take the next step.
“I wanted to see the big one. I wanted to see what China was all about,” he said of New Zealand’s largest export market.
On his first day back at Massey following the holiday, he walked into the university’s exchange office and started the paperwork that would make Shanghai become a reality.
After arriving there in August last year, he began studying Mandarin, politics, finance and cuisine.
Every weekend he could, he jumped on a train and visited rural villages to get another view of life there.
After the exchange he was only back in New Zealand for five days before he was off again, selected to travel to Indonesia as part of a Prime Minister Scholarship to Asia, where he was part of a group of Massey and Lincoln students learning as much as they could about the country’s agriculture.
Building on his Asian experiences about six weeks ago, Robertson was one of 12 NZ-based students chosen to take part in a food and beverage supply chain virtual study tour of Shanghai, run by the North Asia Centre of Asia Pacific Excellence and Globalink Internships.
He followed that up two weeks later by being part of a Massey team that placed second behind a team from Lincoln in the International Food Marketing Challenge that attracted entries from around the world.
Teams had to develop a strategy and implementation plan for a Florida-based fresh produce distributor disrupted by ongoing covid-19 lockdowns. They had to work on managing the requirements of the distributor’s growers, as well as the ripple effects from the consumer market.
After brainstorming ideas, he and felllow Massey students Alexandra Tomkins, Kazi Talaska and Euphemia Tan made a video explaining their approach, which they then had to present.
Robertson says being named at Massey’s top agriculture student was a humbling experience and means a lot, especially given the close-knit nature of the group he’s been through university with and the high calibre of his peers.
The award was not only about his academic results and achievements, as it was also selected on his contribution to the wellbeing of his fellow students.
Chair of the Massey University Young Farmers Club, the largest in the country with just under 250 members, he also served as agriculture liaison officer on the Massey Horticulture Society.
His contribution to the young farmer’s club branch was recognised by being awarded the Sally Hobson Award for his work, which was voted on by club members.
The breadth of achievements was highlighted by the student of the year selection committee.
“William has put in an excellent performance this year in all criteria for the Massey Agriculture Student of the Year Award,” the committee said.
“Not only has he represented Massey University agriculture and horticulture exceedingly well on the international and national stage, he was also one of the top students in his year group academically, and still found the time to play for the Massey University under-21 A rugby team for the three years he was at Massey. He also made time to help fellow students with their work and assist with promotional activities for the university.”
With his bachelor of agri-commerce studies coming to a close, Robertson is preparing to begin the Fonterra business development programme in early February.
He says the wide-ranging two-year programme will give him a good understanding of the practicalities of primary sector business and will put him in a good position to take the next step to where he sees his working future lies, somewhere in the export market supply chain.
“I’d like to be able to help farmers get the best value they can for what they produce,” he said.
There must be something in the genes, as Robertson is the younger brother of current NZ Young Farmers competition champion James, and their pathways so far have been strikingly similar.
After growing up on a 200-cow dairy farm in central Waikato, both attended Massey, won the university’s top agriculture student award, chaired its young farmers club and are, or will be, part of Fonterra’s graduate programme.
For the younger Robertson, the thing he loves most about the primary sector is its people.
“There’s something different about people that work in the primary sectors, though I’ve never been able to figure out what. A sense of honest humility, backed by huge pride in what they do,” he said.
“Milking cows, shearing sheep or building fences may not sound great to some, but it’s what gets a lot of people up in the morning.
“It’s really inspiring hearing people find their dream jobs in so many different areas when you are only just beginning to start your career.”