Fifth year Biological Sciences student Sean Savage shares his adventures studying abroad and offers some advice to anyone looking to venture beyond the U of A. Sean's trip took him to Australia this past July and brought him back to the U of A in November.
What were your expectations before taking off?
I honestly had no idea what to expect. As a student who has never lived anywhere other than home with my parents I wasn’t sure if I was ready to handle the added responsibilities of living on my own, especially in another country. I had expected warmer weather, but had greatly underestimated the actual warmth of their climate! Culturally, I was expecting something similar to Canada based on what I had heard from friends who had previously travelled to Australia; For the most part this was true.
My first day in Australia was very surreal and quite dream like. I had arrived to Brisbane in the morning after travelling with connecting flights for the past 19 hours. Fortunately, I was smart enough to upgrade my seat on the plane to an emergency exit row which allowed me to be as comfortable as possible without having to donate my first born and a kidney to pay for a first class ticket. Upon arrival, after clearing customs my plan was to take the public transit system to my temporary accommodation, which I had arranged through couchsurfing.org.
Unfortunately, having no experience with the more complex railway design of well developed public transit systems I was left scratching my head while staring at the railway map which listed strange names like “Toowong” and “Taringa”; I later found out that those were neighbourhoods and most of the suburbs of Brisbane were named using the language of the Aborigines. Fortunately for me, my couchsurfing host was able to contact me via Facebook informing me that she could pick me up from the airport, show me around the city for a few hours and then drop me off at the University so I could pick up my student ID and explore the campus.
After exploring the city, she took me for lunch to experience the traditional Australian burger (hamburger with a poached egg and sliced beet). She then dropped me off at the University where I was able to explore the University of Queensland’s beautiful campus. It was quite different from our home campus, being very flat with the tallest building being around 4 story’s but had amazing architecture and lots of outdoor spaces to study, including by the man made lakes.
What was the highlight of your time abroad?
I think my favourite moment happened in the middle of August, about a month into the exchange. I had developed several close relationships and my friends and I, along with other exchange students went to a place called Byron Bay on a weekend trip organized by QUEST. Byron Bay is a small surf town just south of Brisbane and is literally heaven on earth. We stayed in dorms while we were there and were able to bond with the other exchange students during events organized by QUEST including: A beach soccer game, surf-lessons, kayaking with dolphins and whales, and nightly events at the local bars.
After the first night, we arrived home around 3:00 a.m., and were woken up by members of the QUEST executive at 4:00 a.m. to participate on a lighthouse walk to see the sunrise. Exhausted and frustrated by my lack of sleep, I dragged myself out of bed joined the other 150 dazed international students on walk through cold wet sand, and steep never-ending stair cases for what seemed like 3 hours. 55 minutes after we left, we arrived at the most Easterly point of Australia, a cliff 50m above the ocean and were greeted with the most surreal picturesque sunrise you could imagine.
It suddenly hit me that everything I had been experiencing was real and this was my life for the next few months. During the remainder of my time in Australia I was able to experience so many amazing things and create so many incredible memories. As mentioned, I was able to drive down the east coast of Queensland with amazing friends starting from the Whitsundays, stopping at places like Airlie Beach, Fraser Island, and Noosa and finally returning to Brisbane. I was able to travel to Melbourne with the same friends where we were able to see penguins on Phillip Island and drive the scenic “Great Ocean Road” along the southern coast of Australia. Following my stay in Australia, I was fortunate enough to travel through New Zealand in a wicked camper van with one of my best friends that I met in Australia.
If you had to pick one photo to sum up your trip, what would it be?
This photo summarizes the overall experience very well. During my first few weeks, I was able to develop amazing friendships with about 12 people. We bonded through pub-crawls and weekend trips that were organized by the University’s international student group: QUEST. During the mid-semester break, we travelled north to The Whitsunday islands and road-tripped back down the east coast of Queensland in rental cars. It was an incredible and unforgettable experience. Before we left we held a meeting during which we organized the road trip designated roles for various tasks (accommodations, transportation, etc.) we decided that the trip needed a name; Shenanigans, somehow came up as a suggestion and stuck. We adopted (purchased) from K-Mart, a travel mascot for the road trip named Chucho and saved him from becoming a chew toy for an Australian Rottweiler. The photo was taken on Whitehaven Beach, which is the most beautiful beach that you could possibly picture.
The sand is in fact so pure (98% silica) that it was donated to NASA to create the high clarity lens for the Hubble space telescope. All in all, the photo provides a very complete representation of my experience in Australia and the friendships that I have made.
Has the experience changed the way that you approach your studies back in Canada?
Definitely. The most apparent change to my study habits has been organization and time management. While abroad, I found that my days were significantly busier with: grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, continually laundering my small amount of clothing, hanging out with friends, and attending lectures and other course related events. As such, I have become very good at effectively managing my time and prioritizing in order to complete my coursework in a timely fashion. After all, the abroad experience is so much more than just the schoolwork, so I wasn’t going to let that take away from the experience.
I have learned everything from, but not limited to: time-management and cooking healthy meals, to fixing house hold appliances, developing international relationships and ‘cheering’ in about 8 different languages.
Do you have any advice to share with students looking to study abroad?
Firstly, if you have any inclination to go: JUST DO IT. I can almost guarantee that it will be the most incredible experience of your life. The second piece of advice I can offer is what a friend told me before I left “Pack your bag, remove half of the clothes you think you need and take twice the money you plan”. If money is what’s holding you back, the University of Alberta International has tons of financial aid opportunities available.
Final Thoughts?The trip exceeded my expectations 1000 times over. The most important thing I have learned from this experience is you only truly discover who you are, when you are 1000 km’s away from home, out of your comfort zone. Being subject to so many amazing experiences not only opens your eyes to appreciate what the rest of the world has to offer, but what you often take for granted at home.
To learn more about the U of A's Education Abroad program, check out their site here.
Applications for the next round of study abroad spots closes on January 31.