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Study Abroad in Australia

“The Best Six Months of Your Life”

Study Abroad in Australia
Roomates in Australia: Andy, Mara, Toby, and Lindsey.

Perhaps it is a cliché, but it is true; college is indeed the best four years of your life. When you are tossed out into what some deem the “real world,” you wonder where the time went. After a few weeks behind a desk at your new job, you wish you could go back. Everyone who has graduated university can attest to this, and everyone who is currently studying at a university denies that it will ever happen to them. Trust me, it will. And a study abroad experience is one of the most fulfilling ways to spend that time.

Too often I hear stories from my friends returning from abroad having spent their semester haunting the local bars with their American friends, living in the “international” dormitory and generally experiencing America on foreign soil. What follows are some tips on how to make the most of your study abroad experience, whether you are in Rome, Quebec, Qingdao, or Auckland. My own memorable experience involved studying at the University of Queensland (UQ) in Brisbane, Australia. Follow my advice and you should experience your new home in depth, make lifetime friends from another country, and see things to which your fellow students might have been blind.

Living Abroad: Housing

Most of my friends who participated in study abroad programs had every last detail organized by their university, from flights to tuition, to food and housing. Their experience was similar to moving to college for the first time as a freshman—you are nervous, and the transition becomes easier when there are fewer decisions to make and less variables.

Having your accommodations preselected is a mistake. Just as you may have realized by your sophomore year that you wish to move out of the dorms and into an apartment, you will realize that school-supplied housing at a foreign university is often a limiting factor in the enjoyment of your new country and university.

UQ was one of the few universities offered by the PSU Study Abroad office that did not arrange housing for you. I landed in Brisbane and had arranged with UQ to stay in the dorms until I could find a place to stay. This meant arriving to Oz about a week before classes started, which provided an excellent opportunity to familiarize myself with a new city, new people, and a new culture.

Knowing it is up to you to find a suitable apartment within a week is a daunting task at first—but it forces you to get out of your comfort zone, meet new people, and experience life in another country, rather than immediately falling into a routine. While living the dorms, I met some women from Penn State—all in need of an apartment—and we went hunting together. I was desperate to find a friend to pal around with, and as luck would have it, met a German guy named Toby who was also on his own, and also needed a place to stay. The four of us traipsed around Toowong and Indooroopilly, two Brisbane suburbs near the university. By the end of the day we had secured a 4-bedroom flat overlooking the Brisbane River, only a mile from school and on the way to the city.

At first the process was daunting, but soon it became an adventure. Having a place of our own—off the school premises—forced us to experience quasi-real life in Brisbane and not just university life. I think I aged five years in terms of experience in those six months, certainly in wisdom and experience. Looking back, I am incredibly thankful that Penn State did not provide me with housing. If you are the least bit adventurous, this is by far the way to go.

The Educational Experience in Australia

I have not mentioned much about class at UQ. Ostensibly, this is why you are attending a foreign university—to continue your education while broadening your cultural horizons.

The Lecture Halls

At Penn State, my larger lecture classes relied almost exclusively on objectively-graded assignments with one big mid-term and final exam—usually multiple choice—answered on those ubiquitous Scantron sheets. I could reasonably assume before registering for any class that my grade would depend on these two major exams.

At UQ, the university educational philosophy was almost completely the opposite. Instead of major exams determining your grade, a series of smaller projects and presentations—all subjectively criticized and graded—determined your fate as a student. I found this incredibly refreshing. This system rewarded creativity and self-study, and gave a motivated student the chance to really expand their minds by researching what interested them in a given class while fostering critical thinking. Instead of regurgitating information and recognizing the correct answer on a multiple-choice form, your grade depended upon in-depth knowledge of a subject and the ability to research in order to put together a coherent paper or presentation.

My favorite example came from my Australian Popular Culture class. Our major assignment for the semester was to pick an Australian television show and critically examine several episodes, drawing conclusions as to how the Aussie culture was portrayed by the show. (Not many Aussies have cable television, and the four public channels air a limited amount of authentic Aussie TV. Most programs obtain a cult following, and there is no denying the cultural importance TV plays when nearly everyone is watching the same shows.) I chose Rove Live, a late-night talk show with elements of Conan O’Brien, The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live, which reflected a pretty accurate cross-section of relevant popular culture in Australia.

Everyone in a class of about 150 worked independently—outside the lecture hall—on different assignments. In class, we studied the type of popular culture the professor decided was important, and the end result was essentially two classes in one—an independent study and a cooperative classroom experience where debate and collective interaction drove the class. At Penn State, this experience never occurred in the large lecture halls, yet it was common at UQ.

Grades in Australia

The objective-based assignments and exams at Penn State enabled determined students to strive for perfection. You could get straight A’s if you studied, and there was no way a professor could deduct points because he did not not agree with the circled “‘a” on your Scantron sheet if it happened to be the correct answer. This system is plainly black and white, right or wrong, no chance for discussion, no reason for debate.

In the Aussie system, nothing is black and white or right and wrong. There is always room for debate, and the professors encourage it. Subjectively graded assignments meant less “As” for the American student accustomed to them, but also meant a greater chance to learn. Getting the highest mark on an assignment at UQ is nearly impossible as the belief is that work can never be perfect. I worked hard at UQ and never received the highest marks. Nonetheless, a “B” grade meant I was in the highest percentile in class, an excellent achievement indeed. Most home universities recognize the philosophical difference in grading, and adjust your GPA accordingly. My “Bs” at UQ translated into straight “As” at Penn State.

Ultimately, you must be prepared to adapt to a different style of learning. Debating with a professor over an opinion in a term-paper may just teach you more than any mid-term or final at home could. Instead of memorization and rote-learning, you must learn to research, argue and draw conclusions.

Social Activities

UQ is situated on a bend of the Brisbane River, about three miles from the city center, and is blessed with gorgeous surroundings and year-round perfect weather. Though it was about 114 degrees Fahrenheit when I arrived in February—the heart of the Southern Hemisphere’s summer—I enjoyed the warm climate as a welcome relief from the frozen tundra of middle Pennsylvania in winter.

On campus, my new friends and I looked forward to “O-Day,” where all University clubs populated the lawn with information stands in an attempt to recruit new members. Toby and I joined the Water Ski Club that had a dock and two ski boats in the river, right on campus, and the Sailing Club that took weekend excursions to the beach to go sailing.

We found the clubs on campus to be the perfect way to interact with local and international students, and participated in every event we could, knowing we had only a limited time “Down Under” to enjoy ourselves. We got the most out of it indeed, making local friends and getting beyond campus, welcoming invitations to peoples’ homes and family events, and felt we had really made the most of our short time in a new culture.

Life After Study Abroad

Five years have passed since my semester in Australia, which seems simply implausible to me. It goes without saying that those six months in Oz were the best of my life, and simultaneously the fastest to pass by. I lived through every emotion, from fear to excitement to homesickness to incredible happiness, and each new experience encouraged me to keep drifting outside my comfort zone and open up to the world about me.

Since that first long flight to Oz as a twenty-year-old, I’ve wandered around Tasmania, explored Fiji, been back to New Zealand, seen Scandinavia, Europe and the U.K., taught English in the Czech Republic, and captained a sailboat in the Caribbean. Travel has become my life. While it may not become your life, a study abroad experience will at the very least be remembered as the greatest semester of your college career. So get on that flight, get out of your comfort zone, and experience the world. Your life might change for it.

Diving from a waterfall in Queensland, Australia
Andy and new friend Toby waterfall diving in rural Queensland.

Further Reading

Each university has its own accredited study abroad programs, and the best bet for finding one that fits is to visit the Study Abroad office and for a consultation. Additionally, I recommend attending every seminar you can on international travel and university life abroad. At the very least they will motivate you to pursue an adventure abroad.

To draw inspiration, I recommend talk to people who have gone before you. Better yet, talk to the host university, and see if they can put you in touch with some local students or other international students to get an idea of what to expect when you arrive.

It may also be a cliché, but buy a Lonely Planet or another quality guidebook for the country you wish to visit. Though six months seems like a long time, it is infinitely short, and having an idea of what you want to do before you arrive is a great way to plan your stay. I have been traveling for over five years now, and my collection of Lonely Planets continues to grow.

Finally, plan your trip with the attitude that you are going to become a different person—because you will be different when you return, regardless of what you think. If you are shy, talk to everyone. If you are not very adventurous, go bungee jumping, for example. Seek out every experience you can, and take advantage of every opportunity, no matter how trivial—you have already made the huge decision to leave home for a while, so leave your worries behind and enjoy the best six months of your life.

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