Stories from Study abroad: Six weeks in Canberra
By Veronica Opreff
Over the last several years I have participated in various exchanges around the world. Each one of these was unique and immensely impactful. The most recent exchange I participated in was through the Queen’s International Programs Office on a bilateral exchange to the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia. I believe the skills that are learned from living and adjusting within a society and culture different than my own have been greatly influential not only within my life but as well within my continuing academic endeavours. The influences and perspectives I have been able to draw upon as a result of my time abroad have enriched and enhanced all aspects of my thinking and everyday life. I have learned to pull from the skills I have acquired, from readings and knowledge I have been exposed to, the people I have talked to, experiences I have had and so much more. I have noticed that my changing perspectives do not just affect one part of my life but have a domino effect on all parts of my life.
Although my time in Australia was cut short due to the pandemic, I feel extremely fortunate to still have had six weeks of the experience. As I have had some experience living abroad, going into this exchange I decided that I wanted to get involved on campus as soon as I could. Within the first week I joined clubs and a couple choirs. I also sought out different events that were happening around campus and took advantage of them early on. I am so thankful that I went into this exchange with this mindset as I felt like a part of the university, even though I was only there for a short period of time. Through these activities and involvement, I met so many local students who were able to show me around and tell me about what makes the city of Canberra unique or different from where they came from in Australia. I have no doubt that had I stayed there longer, I would have been able to observe and experience more of the culture and the beauty it has to offer. I strongly encourage anyone thinking of exchange to get involved in the campus they go to, because people are often more friendly than we think, and I have found this the most effective way to get to know the place I am in and build meaningful connections.
Exchange is different than simply another vacation or a small trip because you are not just a visitor in the place. The city you choose becomes your home for the months you are there and from my experience, this is when I have been able to not only learn about a place and culture but experience the subtle every day beauties and differences. Staying in a place for an extended period of time comes with its challenges. While adjusting to my new normal, I have often experienced culture shock. However, I have found that experiencing the challenge of culture shock, is when I have been able to grow and learn the most. I learn not only more about the place I am in, but about myself and my own idea of reality.
One of my favourite parts of attending the Australian National University (ANU) is the courses I was able to take over the semester. As this university is situated in the capital city of Australia, there is an amazing teaching and research staff team at the university. When I was deciding to participate in exchange, I actively searched for courses that would enhance my knowledge about the part world I was living in and that would not be offered at my home institution. I was lucky to be a part of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander History course, taught in a decolonial fashion from an Indigenous man; I was part of a Pacific studies course taught by an Indigenous Fijian woman; an Indigenous Cultural and Resource Management course taught by a team of professors and lastly, a Forest Management course taught from a passionate professor who incorporated field trips and experiential learning within his course. Each one of these courses was incredibly unique and challenged me in ways I was not expecting. My final assignment in the Aboriginal History course was one of the most challenging assignments I’ve had to write, but extremely rewarding, as it forced me to think in a way I was not used to. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the remaining half of my courses with ANU were taught remotely. However, all of my classes remained synchronous and through this I still felt I was able to learn a great deal and form relationships with my professors and classmates.
I would strongly encourage everyone who is thinking about an exchange to take the chance, apply and see what the outcome is. It is such a worthwhile experience and if you are afraid of not knowing anyone, you are not alone in this. There will be many exchange students in the same position and if you get involved people have always surprised me with how welcoming they are. Another point I would like to emphasize is that exchange will look different for everyone and this is the way it should be. I have been on exchanges where I was travelling every other weekend and some (like this Australian one) where I got involved in the campus and prioritized local experiences over constant travel. Exchange is meant for you to make it your own, to seek out the opportunities you want to be involved in, choose what you want to learn about, and meet people unique to you.
In closing, due to the people that I met, the courses that I took and the experiences that I had, I have noticed their influence in how I approach everyday life, including my approach to academics. Exchange has enriched how I converse with people and the perspectives I seek to add, not only when looking for information for my personal knowledge but also when participating in assignments or discussions within my courses. I believe exchange is an amazing way to get out of your comfort zone and to experience a reality that is separate from your own. To finish off, a question I always ask myself before I apply to or decide to be a part of something is, ‘Would I regret it if I didn’t or if I did?’.