Indiana University Overseas Study

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Hard Lessons and Soft Landings

Sarah Whaley

Finally I’ve wrapped up the ‘study’ part of my study abroad. With my final essay submitted for assessment, I now have time to assess my experience so far. For all the good that has come out of the past four months in this beautiful country, I’ve also had to learn some hard lessons. Thankfully, the hard lessons have all ended in soft landings.

Hard Lesson #1: Australia is not always hot.

It is nearly winter here on the opposite side of the world. And with the exception of the past couple days, it’s been cold. I’d say freezing, but that would be a misstatement. It has yet to drop below freezing, but my new Aussie experience of the world means a little chilly feels a lot colder than it would back home.

I arrived to high 90 degree Fahrenheit temperatures, and the change from then to now (low 40 degree Fahrenheit temperatures) is biting. Perhaps the change wouldn’t be so bad, except I was overly optimistic with my packing. Lots of short sleeves and tank tops and very few sweaters.

Soft Landing #1: Staying warm is cheaper here than at home.

Luckily, K-mart in Australia is alive and well and $10 sweaters aren’t hard to come by. I’ve been able to fill out my wardrobe with warmer pieces of clothing and now have practical souvenirs to bring home. I was also able to find an inexpensive electric heater and an $18 blanket to make falling asleep easier. I love the blanket so much I might even pay extra for it to be shipped home.

Preparing to Kayak

International friends and I bundled up for a chilly day of kayaking with dolphins.

Hard Lesson #2: When they say don’t procrastinate on your Uni assignments, they mean it.

The booklet given to me before I left home clearly laid out the ways in which study in Australia is different than study in the U.S. Mainly it warned about slacking off because there are less assignments throughout the semester. Though there are less assignments, the ones you are given are worth more.

For the first half of the semester, I did a good job of working ahead on assignments and turning them in sometimes a week ahead of time. I felt more relaxed than I’ve ever felt throughout my Uni career. Then mid-semester break ended and the assignments started piling up.

Instead of being worth 10 to 20 percent of my grade, the assignments were worth 25 to 40 percent. I had a major exam and two major research essays due in a span of two days. Perhaps I wouldn’t have reached the level of anxiety I did if I had worked further ahead instead of procrastinating and binge-watching How I Met Your Mother.

Soft Landing #2: I survived Uni.

Though the past week was stressful trying to finalize my Uni assignments, they are now complete. I almost don’t know what to do with myself going from being overwhelmingly busy to completely free. My classes ended earlier than many of my friends’ and while they’re studying I’m seeking out my next victim to distract with a game of cards or a walk around the city. I’m looking forward to a month of holidays before returning home.

Kaurna smoking ceremony

A Kaurna smoking ceremony wrapped up a semester of Indigenous studies courses.

Hard Lesson #3: Your problems remain your problems 10,000 air miles away.

Before I left the U.S., one of my best friends told me he envied me. I was going to be able to leave my problems on ice for half a year while he dealt continuously with his at home. I reassured him he’d be alright, but I believed him that I was escaping. That turned out not to be the case.

The thing about your problems is that they’re yours and they’re bound to follow you wherever you go. I’ve dealt with many of the same emotional struggles I’ve had at home here. I’ve also dealt with new ones, like homesickness and being frustratingly far away from the people you trust the most to be there for you when your day doesn’t go the way you planned. And now that I’m facing going home in a month, I’m feeling torn in a similar way I felt torn before leaving home for here.

Soft Landing #3: Old problems have new solutions 10,000 air miles away.

Though your problems remain much the same when you travel, traveling provides a new perspective on them than the one you’ve been trapped in back home. You also are surrounded by new friends with new stories, new advice and new solutions. Instead of going for a therapeutic run, you can go for a therapeutic surf. And with the understanding that you’re going home in a month, you can take the days that don’t go as planned less seriously.

Though these three lessons and others I’ve dealt with here in Australia have been hard, the landings have all been soft. After all, it’s difficult to feel down for long when you’re a short drive from an ocean sunset and in a country whose national motto may as well be “No worries, mate.”

ocean sunset

A breathtaking ocean sunset just when I needed it most.

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The ‘Study’ Part of Study Abroad

Sarah Whaley

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.

Selfie in front of trees.

Looking far more prepared than the first day.

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.

South Australian Museum

A trip to the South Australian Museum for Indigenous Studies fieldwork.

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.

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Culture Hooray


My return to the United States after seven months in Italy was less of a culture shock and more of a culture “Hooray!” Being gone for so long had left me with an appreciation of small things I take for granted here—the bathrooms in stores, the lower prices of clothes, the regular-shaped folders, the shorter lectures, and the Thai restaurants.


Who Turned Up the Heat?


One week in, one midterm down. When each class is only three weeks long, the pace moves fast. But never once has it been overwhelming. The university does a great job of organizing the classes and providing social programs to let you interact and get to know your peers outside the classroom. The London School of Economics (LSE) provides an array of activities for students who wish to sign up. There are weekend day trips to Stonehenge and Oxford, and evening musical outings to The Lion King or Les Misérable. But you do need to be prepared to spend some time in the library and do the assigned class readings.


The End of Something


I recently left Bologna behind, struggling to pack my huge stock of clothes and souvenirs and miscellanea that had mysteriously proliferated during my stay.


Proper German Citizen


Germany is the model citizen of Europe where Italy is the drama queen.

It is proudly and militantly clean where Italy is flamboyantly polluted. The green is well groomed, the recycling meticulous, the jaywalking non-existent. The economy is large and stable and the politics comparably less corrupt. Proper water pressure, organized bus and subway systems, and consistent street signs are all remnants of German efficiency. If only they knew how to cook…


True Life: I Survived Peruvian Midterms


As everyone back at IU struggled through finals week, I had my own bout of misery as well—Peruvian midterms.


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