Views of Australia shared by friends back home tend to consist of sea and sun. Not studying. Nor did mine prior to the start of classes at University of Adelaide. I have to admit the studying part of study abroad is still not sitting well with me. When I could be surfing instead, why would I want to sit inside and open a book?
However, reality reminds me studying at Uni is the only reason they gave me a visa to get into the country. So I figure now I am halfway through the semester, I may as well embrace it.
Studying in Australia is quite different from studying in the U.S. For starters, undergraduate degree programs here are typically three years long instead of four and taking gap years between high school and university is not uncommon. That means some of the freshers (freshmen) arriving on campus spent the past year or two backpacking Europe or being a ski instructor in Japan. Also, many students at Uni live at home and commute to classes, which is less common in the U.S. for a state university. Otherwise, students live with friends or in residential colleges (separate campuses housing around 150 to 250 students from various universities).
The living conditions of students contribute to the confusing Aussie terminology surrounding education. Back home we often use the terms school, college, and university interchangeably. Here each means something distinct. School strictly refers to kindergarten through 12th year. So when I unconsciously let a phrase like “my school back home…” or “school work” slip, I get strange looks. Saying “my college back home” is greeted with similar looks, as college strictly refers to a residential college. Only university (almost always shortened to uni) refers to university, and hence phrases such as “I’m headed to uni” and “uni work” are commonplace.
After nailing down the education lingo, I found adjusting to other major differences at uni easy, even enjoyable. First, taking only 12 credit hours worth of classes a semester as opposed to the 16 or 17 I am used to at IU has been a welcome relief. Four classes are certainly more manageable than five or six. Also, the lack of busy work has been amazing. Most courses in Australia are assessed entirely on the outcome of three or four assignments as opposed to weekly submissions. That said, the lack of padding to your grade when facing major papers or exams can be an added stressor. One missed or botched assignment (especially if you have an unforgiving professor) will lead to failing the course. It is also more difficult to dedicate time to studying for uni when you don’t have a graded assignment to turn in, though that’s exactly what Australian professors expect you to do. It’s more difficult to get away with turning in a major assignment you finished the night before. If you’re lucky you’ll pass, but you won’t get distinction or high distinction (meaning you’ll receive a 50 to 64 percent, but no higher). Professors expect to see you’ve put in time reading other books related to the topic and doing practice exercises outside of class.
Though the assessment structure in Australia sounds intimidating, I’ve found it easy to adjust to in comparison to the little things I never expected could throw me off. For instance, I brought over old folders and journals from the U.S. to use for classes here to avoid extra costs, only to find out the paper is the wrong size. Like the British, the Aussies use A4 paper. Which in U.S. measurements is just off enough to make a difference at 8.27 by 11.69 inches. Luckily, the printer at St Mark’s always reminds me when I’ve forgotten to change documents to A4 paper by refusing to print. Other inconveniences such as not knowing how to format different types of papers, or how to reference in Harvard style had me almost in tears during a busy assessment week. But once I got over my embarrassment and asked the questions I needed to, my professors and Aussie friends were understanding and curious to learn more about the differences in American formatting rather than impatient with my ignorance of theirs. My friend Glen even proofread one of my papers to correct my poor American spelling (they don’t understand our use of “z”s in “colonisation,” our lack of “u”s in “colour,” or even why we call a “.” a “period” instead of a “full stop”).
All in all, I think I lucked out taking arts and humanities electives while abroad. I’m used to writing papers, which are most of my assignments (here my engineering friends cringe). The class topics are fascinating to me: Indigenous Studies of Australian Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders; Anthropology of Emotion, Mind, and Person; Electronic Writing; Introduction to Linguistics. Indigenous Studies is easily my favorite class, as my professor is enthusiastic and I would have never had a chance to take such a course back home. I love doing the readings about Aboriginal Dreamings and find myself looking for evidence of institutions paying respect to Aboriginal people everywhere. Anthropology is providing me a new and challenging way of looking at the world divided not into binaries such as black and white or Eastern and Western, but into small and specific cultures, times, and places. My professor for Electronic Writing is the most accommodating and friendly of all of my professors, taking time after class to get to know me and answer my questions about the differences in Aussie class structure and formatting.
Linguistics, which I thought would be a breeze, is killing me. (My use of the phrase “killing me” being an interesting linguistic phenomenon itself.) Not only is enough information packed into each week of the course that it could be its own course, but the professors are generally unhelpful. Every time I ask a question I get looked at like I’m only trying to get a good grade (which I would like as well, I suppose, but really I just want to know what I am doing) and I’m given an even more ambiguous answer than before. And now we’re learning phonetic transcription and the International Phonetic Alphabet, I’m more aware than ever of my status as a foreigner. After mid-semester break I will be facing an in-class transcription exercise spoken in – guess what – an Aussie accent. Which, though I’m now mostly adjusted to, I do not hear in my own head when I repeat auditory input back to myself. Did you know the Aussie pronunciations of “merry,” “marry,” and “Mary” are written differently in IPA? According to my American pronunciation, they should be the same.
Though adjusting to certain classes and differences while studying in Australia has been a challenge, I suppose I wouldn’t change that part of my experience even if I could. After all, the goal of studying abroad is to push one’s limits and learn to live in another culture – not to conform it to your previous expectations of the world. Even your expectations of yourself have to change. At home I’d pass with flying colors. Here I might just pass. BUT I also learned how to introduce myself in Kaurna (the local Adelaide Aboriginal language), read about fire-walking for a class, created a new blog called Found Objects of Adelaide, and got to explain the definition of a “Hoosier” to hysterically laughing Aussies. Cool as, mate.