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Living and Studying Abroad in Australia

Cultural Immersion is the Best Way to To Experience the Land Down Under

Article and photos by Carolyn Mueller

Kangaroo Island sunrise in Australia
Kangaroo Island sunrise in Australia.

G’day Mates! 

The bus made one final stop.

“Here ya are, mates. 39 Colliers Close,” the Australearn rep said.

Welcome to our apartment. I gripped my luggage handle tightly. This was it. The first time I would see the apartment that I would be sharing with three roommates. This was the place I would spend the next six months. It was a little piece of a new city and a launching pad into the entire Australian continent.

The apartment was small but well furnished. A glass sliding door opened up into a garden. I walked out, surrounded by drooping wildflowers and the shade of three lanky palm trees. The strange whistle of a magpie sounded from the other side of the fence gate. Slowly, I crossed the cobblestone and made my way toward this gate. I wanted to see what was on the other side, what this place looked like, and what Newcastle, Australia was about.

Pushing open the gate I vaguely heard the crash of surf, and I could smell the slight tang of salt. I walked through the doorway and smiled.

There it was: the ocean.

I threw off my shoes and ran into the sand, wading in past my ankles. The waves roared and crashed, the sun sparkling off each crest with a million flecks of light.

This was Australia.

I fell in love.

Getting to Australia 

The road to the little apartment beside the great, roaring Pacific began early. It was the sophomore year of college, in fact, when I first chose a study abroad destination and program. My first instinct was to go to Europe. Everyone I knew who had studied abroad had gone to Europe. Yet after many hours in the university’s international study offices I realized a different dream. I love the outdoors, animals, and adventure.  Australia offered the chance to explore these interests in a new and unique setting. Australia’s landmass is larger than Europe, yet it holds a mere 21 million people. What fills this vast amount of empty space? Rainforests, beaches, billabongs, glorious coastlines, and miles of empty, rugged desert. It was perfect.

Having chosen Australia as my study abroad destination I was enrolled by default in a program called Australearn (now run by International Studies Abroad) due to my college’s affiliation. The program also provided emergency contact numbers for use during my time abroad, which was comforting though, fortunately for me, unnecessary. The program was a very solid program, but there are other choices as well hosted in Australia, such as IES, SIT and CIEE.

There are many ways in which Australia is a unique study abroad destination. For one thing, flying to Australia is an experience in and of itself. On the way there you will skip an entire day, as even if you leave Los Angeles on a Monday you will arrive in Sydney on a Wednesday. The experience is disorienting, to be sure, yet all part of the journey. Do not let the 15-hour flight intimidate you. Quantas, the main airline which flies from the U.S. to Australia, is exceptionally nice, providing reassurance and comfort throughout the entire flight. The long flight is ultimately worth it, and is part of what makes Australia a perfect study abroad destination. If you are going to fly to the other side of the world, you might as well stay awhile.

Daily Life in Australia 

During my time abroad I lived in Newcastle, a city on the eastern coast of Australia three hours North of Sydney. Newcastle is a surf city, complete with gorgeous beaches, a wonderful harbor and neighborhoods with true Aussie character. I fell entirely in love with Newcastle. Yet, I knew, before going abroad, that I may not have another chance in my lifetime to travel to Australia. Therefore, I made it my goal to, as often as possible, leave Newcastle. I wanted to really see Australia — no small feat when considering the size of this great continent.

If at all plausible, I would highly recommend taking out a loan before your departure. Someday you will have the money, but you will never have the same amount of time as you do while in college. Use this time wisely, see as much as you can and really take advantage of being abroad. For me, the most viable way to do this was to take out a loan. I borrowed $6,000. Now that the bills from this loan have begun rolling in I still hold no regrets. My experience in Australia was worth every penny.

Aside from basic living expenses, I used the majority of my loan entirely on travel. In our first week in Newcastle my roommate and I made a list of goals, and budgeted our time and money to meet them. We learned to surf. We saw the famous Opera House, traveled the Great Ocean Road, skydived in New Zealand, and sailed the Whistsundays. Making these priorities early and focusing on certain destinations helped us to make the most of our time.

In order to stretch my loan as far as possible I tried to eat as cheaply as I could—while still splurging on the occasional box of famous Australian Tim Tam biscuits, of course! Food Works is a small convenient grocery store scattered across Australia. It is helpful for just picking up an item or two, yet quite expensive. I would recommend trying to find the big convenience marts in your city. This might take a bus ride or some exploration but it is worth it, in order to save on groceries. IGA and Coles are two larger stores with reasonable prices and Big W might be considered “the Wal-Mart of Australia” with prices that really fit a student’s budget.

Dining out is rather pricy. A typical Australian restaurant entrée is priced between 20-30 Australian dollars, which is often too much for anything more than the occasional celebratory splurge. Yet most cities have cheaper “fish n’ chip” shops where one can pick up a quick bite to eat with true Aussie flavor. While on the road and staying in a hostel, the truly frugal student can “adopt” leftover food from previous travelers. Most Australian hostels have an area in the kitchen for departing guests to leave any unopened and unwanted food. I often found an unopened can of soup or package of biscuits through this method “pass it on” food network.

Basic living expenses such as toiletries and make-up are also quite expensive in Australia. If possible, I would recommend taking these items from home. The only toiletry I would suggest buying in Australia would be sunscreen. In general, I found that the sunscreen manufactured in Australia was much stronger and lasted much longer than the American brands I brought from home. Whether on the beach, in the desert or simply traveling, sunscreen in Australia is a must

Daily travel in Australia can also add up. I found the most convenient form of travel to be via trains. I took the train to school each morning, out at night and often to Sydney for the weekend. The trains are clean, fast, and pass through lovely eucalypt landscapes. You can also meet interesting people on the trains, as it is a normal form of travel for many locals, particularly students of any age Train prices vary. For me a trip to school (about six stops) was around three Australian dollars. The three hour ride to Sydney was twenty. There are student discount tickets which can be purchased from the station machines, but be warned—just because you are a technically a “student” (even a temporary student at an Australian university) does not mean you qualify for the student train rates. Most people I know tended to ignore this fact and purchased student priced tickets anyway, at the risk of being potentially fined. If you can get away with it, it can save you quite a bit of money in the long run.

Buses are a great form of transportation as well. I often utilized the bus system for grocery shopping or running general errands. The bus system is not as fast as the trains but, depending on the distance, can sometimes be free. Just be sure to check the rates first and make sure you are familiar with the timetable before planning a trip.

Volunteer Work in Australia

If you are hoping to work or volunteer in Australia it is fairly easy to get a job with a working holiday visa. A typical serving job in Australia might pay twenty Australian dollars an hour. This is because gratuity is usually included in menu pricing, so unlike in the U.S. waiters or waitresses do not make the majority of their income from tips. Yet a few friends of mine served fish n’ chips a couple of nights a week and were able to pick up a substantial amount of travel money as a result.

I chose to volunteer abroad with Conservation Volunteers Australia. I spent my time eradicating invasive plant species brought by Europeans to the continent in the nineteenth century. It was hard work, but a fun way to learn about the native environment, meet new people, and experience a unique place while doing something to give back to the land I had come to love.

Ely River
Ely River.

Studying Abroad in Australia 

Much of my education in Australia derived from life experiences. I learned more exploring new landscapes, getting lost in foreign city streets, and chatting with locals and fellow travelers than I did in the classroom. Yet, for most study abroad students, university requirements are typically an essential and mandatory part of the experience.

I attended the University of Newcastle in New South Wales. Like most Australian universities, the University of Newcastle is built in “the bush,” i.e. land which did not interest real estate developers. Though this made for a bit of a trek, the university was blessed to be located in a gorgeous natural landscape. In my walk from the train station to class I often encountered the screeching of cockatiels, a rainbow flash of lorikeets or, if I was really lucky, the hilarious jungle-like cackling of a kookaburra. Despite the beauty of the campus, one of the best decisions I made abroad was to live off-campus.

American students often chose to live on campus in order to immerse themselves in the study abroad experience. However, I found that living in the actual city of Newcastle provided a more complete immersion into Aussie culture. Most of the Americans I knew who lived at the university, quite naturally, hung out with other Americans. Yet I believe that part of the personal growth and journey of living abroad is to leave one’s natural comfort zones behind. In living off campus I was able to make friends with my neighbors, including the Aussies who were renting apartments around us and quickly became friends. They taught my roommates and I to play cricket, host a true Aussie barbeque, and spear fish in the sea. We surfed, traveled, and spent many nights swapping stories over a box of wine with these locals. I feel that I would not have had these same opportunities if I had chosen to live at the university.

When choosing my classes, however, I aimed to truly learn about Australian history and culture. So, I enrolled in Australian History, Australian Literature, and Aboriginal Studies course. Yet, in which class did I learn the most about the Australian people? Ceramics.

I certainly had good intentions in my quest to learn about my temporary home through university classes. Yet every other American in Newcastle had the same intentions. I found that I shared my Australian classes with more Americans than Australians. I did not get to hear typical Australian views on Aboriginal culture. I did not get to chat with my fellow classmates about the history of their native country. I did, however, get to do these very activities in ceramics class. Choosing the ceramics class was a spur of the moment decision which left me sharing a kiln with half a dozen Australian women, most over the age of 50. We spent many happy afternoons up to our elbows in clay talking politics, culture, and comparing the ways we each said the word “ocean.”

Of course, I did learn many worthy facts about Australian history during my semester studies. But I also could have learned much of this by reading a history book on the long flight over. If you are seeking immersion into real local culture abroad I would recommend avoiding classes with “Australian” in the title. These are sure to attract more Americans than the more typical university courses.

Night Life 

When that Southern Cross rises in the sky, of course it is time to explore Australian night life. The pub scene is an integral part of Australian culture. From dancing to techno beats to having a beer with the blokes while watching footy, Australians of all ages converge together to enjoy the night scene. It is important to note that “hotel” in Australia means the same as “pub.” So, if you see a sign advertising “hotel” is likely not a place to sleep but rather, more likely, a bar.

Like food and toiletries, alcohol is quite expensive in Australia. For example, a typical bottle of vodka which might cost fifteen U.S. dollars will cost around forty Australian dollars. A beer is hard to come by for less than six. And please note, “Foster’s” is certainly not “Australian for Beer” as their slogan says. Most Australians frequently drink Toohey’s or Victoria Bitter instead. For the student on a budget the best thing to drink (in moderation) is “goon,” Australian slang for cheap, boxed wine. It is inexpensive, it lasts awhile, and flavors such as Fruity Lexia are not half bad.

I made the unfortunate mistake of assuming that Australia’s famous, laid back beach culture translated to laid back party attire. I packed almost nothing in terms of footwear but flip flops (or as the Aussies say, thongs). Most bars will not allow you to enter with open-toed footwear. It is common for Australians to finish a drink and then simply drop their glass on the ground, meaning that most bars are littered with shards of broken glass, making heels or some type of more formal footwear a necessity.

When journeying home after a night out be sure to sample some of the typical Aussie nighttime fare. Stands catering to late night partiers feature food items such as mince meat and pea stuffed shepherd’s pie. Some church groups will even set up BBQ stands with free food. But beware—a typical “Aussie Barbie” does not mean shrimp, nor does it include American hamburgers. An Australian barbeque is generally long sausages wrapped in white bread and topped with onions.

Travel within Australia 

If you have made it all the way to the great Australian continent you might as well see as much of it as possible. Fortunately, this is a feasible dream for even the most frugal student traveler. The one thing cheaper in Australia compared to the U.S. is airfare. Aside from train trips to Sydney and the Blue Mountains, I flew almost everywhere. Cheap airlines such as JetStar, and Virgin Australia provide safe and affordable flights minus the luxuries of Quantas, but perfect for the student traveler.

Once you have arrived at your destination it is quite easy to find a place to stay. Australia is famous for its safe, clean network of hostels. The most well known is the Australian Youth Hostel Association known as the YHA. At least one YHA hostel is sure to be found in every city, township or tourist destination in Australia. These backpacker havens are cheap (around US$15-20 a night), fun (Melbourne’s features a rooftop lounge, Sydney’s a game room and bistro and Sunshine Coast’s a pool with lazy hammocks and kayaks) and legally bound to abide by clean standards. YHA memberships will provide you a discount at most destinations. Other hostels are easy to locate in most locations and are great places to meet fellow travelers. I often slept in 10- bedroom dorm rooms with other men and women from all over the world. With these backpackers I could go out, share food or wine, stories or traveling tips. Hostels also arrange interesting tours at discount rates. Through hostels I was able to see the Great Ocean Road and tour New South Wales’ wineries. Even if you are not staying at a hostel be sure to inquire within your local town about activities sponsored by the hostel. It is a great way to meet people and see some memorable sites.

A wallaby in Australia
A wallaby.

Ready, Set, Go! 

Australia is a part of the world where swans are black, and pine trees grow with their needles pointing backwards. Winter is in July and summer is in January. In the north it is warm, in the south it gets colder. Peppers, raisins, and shrimp are capsicums, sultanas and prawns. Mammals lay eggs, penguins burrow in sand and foxes fly. It is a place of contrast and absurdity. I will remember it and love it forever.

My best advice is simply to go and do not look back. You will make mistakes, learn about yourself, and explore a wonderful part of the world. Throw yourself into all that rolling sunshine and let the adventure just happen.

Twelve Apostles at sunset
Twelve Apostles at sunset.
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