Who: Michelle from Atlanta, GA, USA
When: July-December 2010
Where: University of Sydney, NSW, Australia -Psychology.
What made you decide that you wanted to participate in a student exchange?
I was feeling ready to leave behind some things I was struggling with at home (moving on from an ex, family struggles etc.). I also just wanted to travel!
How did you choose where you wanted to spend your semester/time abroad?
I don’t speak any second languages so I needed a university with classes all in English. I ended up choosing between England and Australia, and I picked Australia because the weather was better.
Before leaving, what were your expectations for this experience?
I literally had no idea. Kangaroos? Surfers?
What were your first thoughts upon arrival at your new campus?
The Asian food is super yummy, the ibis birds are hilariously awkward, and being able to drink alcohol legally is a pretty neat thing.
What were some hurdles that you had to overcome/how did you do it?
There were very few hurdles honestly. I had a great group of friends, Sydney was a blast, and I rarely went to class, which, worked out fine since all I needed, to do was pass (my credits transferred over as pass/fail). Probably the biggest challenge was that everything was so wildly expensive! To overcome this, I picked up work as a babysitter and as a server in a café.
Did you notice any major differences between studying at your home country and your host country?
I was actually pretty disappointed with the Sydney uni quality of education I encountered. My grade for each class was derived from maybe one paper and two tests – there wasn’t a lot of room to improve over the course of the semester. Even though each assignment/assessment was weighted heavily, the opportunity to succeed or stand out was limited by the fact that getting the highest grade possible (a “high distinction”) was nearly impossible. Why try when you can’t succeed? Furthermore, I felt there was a campus-wide lack of enthusiasm for learning. Many of my lecturers would either bore students to tears or dump a completely unreasonable amount of information on us, which we would discuss only once and be expected to know for the final exam six weeks later. The most frustrating thing was that everything closed at 6pm, including the library. Where in the world was I supposed to go to study??
What are some of your favourite memories from your time abroad?
Eating gelato with my Italian friend, Rebecca, (who now lives in DC and I still hang out with!!) on Glebe Point Road; cliff jumping in Bondi with my Australian friend, Jordan; walking along the cliffs from Bondi to Coogee; making international potluck dinners with my 10 housemates; eating dumplings in Chinatown; walking to the Opera House at night…
Has this experience at all changed the way in which you view yourself/other cultures?
It empowered me. I proved to myself that I could successfully show up in a country alone and make a life for myself.
Did you travel much whilst you were abroad?
I went to Cairns, Brisbane, Melbourne, and on a 10 day campervan trip around New Zealand.
If so, did this travel enhance your experience? Why/why not?
Absolutely. I got to swim in waterfalls and dive the Great Barrier Reef, which was definitely a bucket list item. The New Zealand trip was incredible of course. And I got to see Melbourne which is important so I can actually have a position on the Sydney versus Melbourne debate (definitely Sydney, no doubt about it ;).
How did this experience change you?
I actually think it heightened my expectations about what travel abroad would be like. When I moved to Thailand to teach English a couple years later, it was much more difficult to navigate life in general because I didn’t speak the language of course. And what’s this whole “teaching thing” – I have to actually work while I’m here?? Yeah…
But it also empowered me to travel solo later on and that has been really important for me spiritually. Oh and it was the birth of my blog of course! Back then it was called “Wallaby Way – Fish are friends, not food!”
Would you recommend other people participate in a student exchange?
Yes but don’t go on one of those programs where you pay a flat fee and everything is organised for you, and you travel with students from your home school. If you’re going to go on exchange, put yourself out there.
If so, what is your top reason for why people should study abroad?
I’ll quote myself here circa 2010:
“Sydney itself deserves credit for the most amazing five months of my life only insomuch as I would not have met the people I did if I had gone anywhere else. My Sydney friends showed me how to indulge – in music, in new experiences, in food…I learned how to feed my own happiness. To do things that thrilled me, challenged me, and made me feel alive.”
To paraphrase an old friend from Sydney, go because you will feel rich inside.
To read more about Michelle’s travel experiences be sure to check out her blog on the following sites:
To read about more Study abroad stories, make sure you check out the Student Abroad Series!