Note from Katie: I always love it when I get the opportunity to feature writing from people whose student experiences are very different from mine. Danny Conway is a student from Columbus, OH who is currently studying chemistry at the University of Melbourne. Although he characterizes himself as an "average" American, I would argue that the decision to pursue a full undergraduate education abroad is anything but "average." I hope you enjoy!
An Average American Studying in Australia
Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to travel. Explore the world, get to know a different culture, experience new things. Studying abroad seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so, and explore the world while I still had the freedom to do so. So when the time came to send off those college applications, I picked Melbourne, Australia of all places. It was exotic, different (whilst still being English-speaking), and to my family and friends, it was a completely leftfield choice! I was accepted, to the equal delight and horror of my parents.
And so off I went, leaving behind the comforts of home, and Columbus, the place I’d lived my entire life. To give you a little bit of insight into what it’s like to pack up and go study chemistry in Melbourne, I’ve put together this handy little guide of my experience and a few golden nuggets of advice – perhaps you too will be tempted to go Down Under!
When I applied to go study in Australia, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. While I knew things would be different, I nevertheless wasn’t prepared for the level of culture shock once I arrived and got settled in. Let’s just say that at first, I thought the only thing I had in common with Australians was English. While the differences between a regular Joe from Columbus and your average Aussie aren’t glaring, it’s more about the sum of the parts, a bunch of little things put together.
And even though going abroad and having an adventure had been something I’d been dreaming of ever since I was about 7 years old, I am ashamed to admit that after just a few weeks I would have taken a flight home if I had the cash. The world just seemed against me somehow. I hit rock bottom when my laptop died 3 days before a big presentation and I hadn’t saved a shred of my work anywhere else. It increasingly looked like Australia and I just weren’t meant to be somehow.
It didn't help that culturally the university was rather different to. In Australia, the minimum drinking age is 18, and while you'd think that meant students got even crazier than those in the US (where, let's be honest, they get crazy enough!) then you'd be surprised. Sure, students would like to get 'hammered' as they used to say, but it was the lunchtime beers, casual pub meet-ups, and sheer ubiquity of alcohol that really made me feel like anything goes.
Whilst classroom lectures were very much as they seemed to be back home (although with nothing to compare to I may be wrong, of course), the huge balance towards independent study – rather than numerous classes in the same subject given constantly – was the thing that caught me off guard.
The bottom line was that I was feeling incredibly homesick. There I was doing exactly what I’d always wanted and yet still, I was unhappy. I felt a mixture of shame, disappointment, and anger. But the thing is, as I later found out, it’s completely normal to feel that way. Think about it, you’re in another timezone, thousands of miles from home, somewhere you’ve never been before. It can be a little jarring. The good news? You’ll settle in before you know it. And you’ll have those adventures you were looking for, guaranteed.
Oh, and that presentation? Absolutely nailed it. I leased a laptop - just like the locals do - started from the ground up, and didn’t give up. The work I did in those 3 days was better than anything I’d produced in weeks.
What You Can Get Out of My Experiences
While that covers my own personal story, I also thought it’d be useful to give you a few pointers on how you can adapt more quickly than I did. Knowing what to expect, where to tweak your behaviour, and how to adapt to local customs will make all the difference. Whilst these are great pointers if you're going to Australia, I feel that some of these truths are universal. Take my experiences on board and you might find yourself being a little less surprised on your own travels. .
Australians are Casual Creatures
Americans tend to give appearance plenty of cache. If you look slick, wear an expensive suit, and wow people by looking the part, you build up credit. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but it’s just the way it works.
Australians, on the other hand, are a casual bunch. Very casual. While turning up to a business meeting in shorts and sandals will still be frowned upon, you won’t be judged on the little details like back home. And while it was a little jarring at first as I was so used to the formula back Stateside, it was eventually a very refreshing experience.
So… Where are Those Creepy Crawlies?
Watching Crocodile Dundee coupled with the Discovery Channel as childhood staples was fun, but probably not a fantastic introduction to Australia. It gave me a deep-set idea that the place would be full of creepy crawlies, awesome beaches and guys wielding huge knives.
The reality is near the opposite end of the spectrum. While there are indeed a few dangerous creatures you wouldn’t want to come across, day-to-day life is thankfully very safe indeed. If you think you’ll be trying to dodge deadly bites from snakes while walking from your dorms to class, it’s not going to happen.
Equality is different
In America, any question of equality inevitably comes down to economics. Even in discussions about race or sex, the bottom line is how much people earn. In Australia, there is less economic diversity, so there's a lot more focus on other areas of equality. One of the biggest differences I noticed was that equality in Australia is a much finer issue, pointed more at the subtleties of the way people act and the words they use, rather than the hard and fast kind of American social justice which revolves almost entirely on opportunity, rights, and employment.
Don’t Forget to RSVP
When Australians tell you to RSVP, they mean it. I once forgot to RSVP for a barbecue and turned up unannounced. To add insult to injury, I didn’t bring my own food and drinks. I was basically treating my host like a ticket to a free meal. And that’s a big no-no Down Under.
Whenever you are invited to a party or BBQ, ensure you bring your own supplies. Ask whether there’s anything you can do (but don’t touch the barbie!) and never forget to let them know that you’re going to show up. I learned this the hard way.
Just like many of us stateside, Australians put a lot of emphasis on being extremely polite and nice no matter the circumstances. Even if the situation is a little sticky or uncomfortable, try and put a smile on your face and treat people with respect.
Making Real Friends = Challenging
Even though everyone was really nice to me when I first arrived - with the usual exceptions you get anywhere - I nevertheless found it quite difficult to make proper friends to begin with. Australians have a shell you need to crack, but once you’ve done that it’s very possible you’ll find friends for life. I know I did (yes, cue the cheesy music).
And Now? I Don’t Want to Leave!
I’m about to start my final year in Australia and I’ve never felt better. I love the country and almost feel like an adopted Aussie myself. In fact, I have a feeling I’m going to feel a little out of place back home in Columbus – perhaps it’s time to look into Melbourne’s Masters programmes!
Danny Conway is a student from Columbus, OH who is currently studying chemistry at the University of Melbourne. He enjoys reading horror fiction, swimming and exploring the great Australian outdoors.
If you enjoyed this post, you should also check out "Cultural Preparation for Study Abroad," "Choosing a College: Gut Feelings and Pro/Con Lists," and "Learning a Language: My Journey in Spanish."