Australia! Living in Sydney was the dream I rarely dared to indulge in throughout my angsty, YA years because the idea seemed so far-fetched and crazy. Though I had dreamt of living in Australia since I was a little girl, I had applied to the BBA Exchange Program on a whim, not really believing that it would be financially or academically wise, not to mention that I thought my mom would rather have me drop out of college than spend any amount of time across the globe by myself. Despite all this, I idly began typing my exchange application essay one day on my phone while pedaling away on a stationary bike at the gym. Just to see what would happen.

This post was originally written as a reflection essay for my scholarship program. As a result, it’s quite a novel! It’s packed with a bunch of photographs taken and general lessons I learned throughout the semester. If you’re interested in learning more about my semester abroad in Australia, please do reach out or poke around my blog for more posts about my Australian adventure!

I am a flurry of denim and caffeine today. A canvas bookbag hangs on my doorknob and I grab it hastily. Slinging it over my shoulder with a foot out the door, I happened to glance inside the bag as I drop my keys in–and I stop in my tracks.

the book bag I received during O-Week at the University of New South Wales. this bag went on a looooot of beach trips!

In the bottom of my bag I see a small pile of sand. Sand from the morning of June 26, the day before my flight home from Sydney, Australia. I reach in and roll the tiny granules of salt between my fingertips and fall into daydreams, my mind flying farther and farther from the scalding Texas summer and back to the Australian winter I had just left behind.

I spent my sophomore spring semester on exchange in Australia.

Australia! Living in Sydney was the dream I rarely dared to indulge in throughout my angsty, YA years because the idea seemed so far-fetched and crazy. Though I had dreamt of living in Australia since I was a little girl, I had applied to the BBA Exchange Program on a whim, not really believing that it would be financially or academically wise, not to mention that I thought my mom would rather have me drop out of college than spend any amount of time across the globe by myself. Despite all this, I idly began typing my exchange application essay one day on my phone while pedaling away on a stationary bike at the gym. Just to see what would happen.

Before I knew it, I was happy-dancing with my mom over FaceTime when I received the e-mail bearing good news: I was officially one of the handful of students escaping to Australia for five months–and the idea of me studying abroad had actually grown on my mom! (phew.) Already I had learned the first of many lessons my semester abroad had in store for me, simply by going through the application process.

If a seemingly impossible dream keeps tugging at your heart, pay attention to it–pursue it. You’re worth your effort.

While the decision to step out of my comfortable routine only took a fleeting moment of courage (and impulsiveness), it takes an immense amount of elbow grease and time to actually achieve anything worth achieving or to do anything worth doing, and I couldn’t have done it without my family and friends’ encouragement (and Australia memes) and the extra financial help provided by my scholarship program, Presidential Scholars. Because of them, I was able to study at Australia’s first school of  marketing and go on the adventure of a lifetime.

Just four days after touching down in Australia, I met up with around 40 other students for a class field trip to Lady Elliot Island, a tiny island formed out of layers of old coral and bird guano off of Queensland’s coast. For five days, we learned about the vibrant flora and fauna around the island as well as the impact of human industries such as aviation, tourism, and guano mining on places like LEI. The lectures came to life before and after class when my new friends and I snorkeled in some of the richest parts of the Great Barrier Reef and walked around the island.

(Yay, new exchange student friends!)

Floating along with black-tipped reef sharks a foot above poisonous fire coral can really get the adrenaline pumping in between lectures.

Check out my LEI vlog, edited in the middle of a jetlagged night Down Under:

Can you guess which of my classes abroad was my favorite? 😉

If the amazing field trip wasn’t enough reason for me to love the course, I had jumped at the chance to enroll in this Aviation & Sustainable Tourism class even though it wasn’t a required class because it reframed issues like environmental stewardship and industry development with the interconnectedness of humans and animals in mind–and I’m a nerd for that kind of stuff! I’m a pre-vet student majoring in business, so naturally, these things make up a good bulk of my shower thoughts. Another lesson learned:

Don’t be afraid to branch out from your degree plan and dive into what you’re into.

Again, thank you to the people behind the Presidential Scholars program. Without your support, I would have missed out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build upon what I’ve been passionate about for many years and see it at work at the Lady Elliot Island eco resort.

I also took my first ever Marketing class while I was at UNSW! The structure of classes was so refreshing and different from what I’m used to back at UT Austin. Different, but good…but also a little intimidating. For one, each class met up once a week for a two-hour lecture and again for a one-hour tutorial session. A different guest speaker headed each Marketing lecture, leveraging their area of expertise to illustrate how the topics played out in real life. Head marketers for Qantas, HCF, and other companies with large presences in Australia came and shared their experiences with us. In tutorials, we were asked to analyze case studies and were graded on the frequency and quality of our discussion participation. I quite enjoyed that part. What really terrified me about Australian higher education norms was how all of my classes only had one cumulative exam at the very end of the semester that inevitably determined whether I passed or failed the class. And it was this scary facet of Australian uni life that helped me grow in an area that I have always struggled in: time management. 

On one hand, I was living for all this free time. I didn’t have class on Mondays and Fridays, which meant that I had four-day weekends every week. I felt like a freedom-crazed freshie all over again. On the other hand, I knew that if I didn’t keep up with my notes, skipped lectures, and slacked on my textbook readings, my academic career would sink faster than Australians say “How you going, mate?” (the somewhat confusing equivalent of the phrase “what’s up, dude?”).

Lucky for me, Sydney has some of the most beautiful study spots, making my daily study time more enjoyable. Ampersand Bookstore and Cafe was my favorite place to study, this three-story, secondhand bookstore that gave off the vibe of being in somebody’s cozy, antique-adorned living room.

The staff was always so friendly to us, though one barista always gave me and my friend Ashley this funny look because we would stay there for five hours to study sometimes, and that just isn’t the norm in Australia. Most people study at home. Studying in coffee shops is “such an American thing”, an Australian friend of mine had pointed out laughing. And it’s true: a lot of local coffee shops and bookstores didn’t have a lot of power outlets, and the tables were tiny–not even enough space for one person to spread out their work. That’s because in Australia, coffee shops are a place people meet up after work or before their morning surf, exchanging stories in their intriguing accents. It’s a place where rare, cherished moments of free time are spent nourishing rare, cherished friendships. I loved that.

No matter how hectic life seems to get, make time to cheer on the people who are cheering you on.

The friends I made at my dorm taught me this lesson. At New College Village, I found a different kind of community I had never experienced in any of my previous college accommodations. Tuesday evenings were floor suppers. I met other Christians in the building at Wednesday evening Bible studies. Thursday evenings were meetings called “Thinking Hard”, where topics like consent, feminism, relationships, and religion were dissected and debated upon in a round-table fashion. I jumped into the college’s band when my friend needed a piano accompaniment to sing Norah Jones’s “Don’t Know Why” for the NCV formal dinner. Most of the residents in my college* were pursuing a master’s degree, doing research, or were in law school. NCV’s residents were as diverse as Sydney itself. I met people from South Africa, Australia, China, America, Germany, the Philippines, Korea, everywhere. My floor’s Senior Resident, Rebecca, welcomed me immediately and became a close friend of mine. Though I was one of the youngest residents in the building, I never felt unwelcome or belittled.

*To clarify the above paragraph, dorms are called “colleges” in Australia, whereas college is “uni”. Then, a college for a certain area of study (e.g. the College of Natural Sciences) is called a “faculty”. You can’t call faculties “school” because you only use the word “school” to refer to elementary school or high school. Which are respectively called “primary school” and “secondary school”. I know, right?

Though I loved my college, I didn’t spend much time at home. I felt the rush of living in a new place, wanting to explore and experience every part of Sydney. I learned to love getting up before the sun this semester. How could I not, being smack right in the middle of such a grand city and breathtaking beaches?

I finally learned how to stop feeling guilty for taking an hour or two off from doing schoolwork to dive into the waves or get coffee with a friend just for the heck of it. I made the effort to get up way earlier to have enough time to sit next to the ocean with a good psychological thriller novel or my Bible. I often worked out with my gym buddies Sean and Ashley, but sometimes I craved the peace that running alone and blasting Kanye West brought. I slept earlier and woke up earlier. I learned this semester:

Self-care is not selfish.

Sometimes self-care is walking without a destination and seeing where your own two feet take you. Sometimes it’s getting out of my room and studying somewhere new. Sometimes self-care looks like microwavable chicken wings in bed watching Netflix, or just getting stuff done sooner than later, preventing the ugly feelings that follow chronic procrastination. For some people, it’s prayer, meditation, yoga, or a walk outside. Taking a moment to make sure that you’re in a good headspace makes for a more productive, joy-filled day of work. I was able to focus during lectures and my few hours of daily studying much better than before. As a result, I didn’t have to cram too much to meet deadlines, and I was able to travel around stress-free, making for an even better semester abroad. Self-care looks different for everybody. It’s not all hot baths and face masks. I’m sure you’ve heard this millions of times before, but I’ll say it louder for the folks in the back: taking care of your mental health is so powerful and will permeate all other parts of your life: physical health, emotional wellbeing, and academic success.

Trivia time! What’s Australia’s capital?

A. Sydney

B. Melbourne

C. Canberra

If you answered Sydney or Melbourne, you’d be like the majority of people–myself included–who assumed that one of Australia’s two biggest cities would be the country’s capital. It’s actually Canberra, only the 7th largest city by population, geographically located inland between the bustling port cities of Melbourne and Sydney to prevent exacerbating the rivalry between the two urban giants. Some friends and I planned a short weekend trip to the city during Enlighten Canberra, an annual outdoor art and cultural festival with hot air balloons, local musicians, and lots of food, drinks, and art exhibits. The impressive buildings like the Parliament House and the National Library of Australia were lit up with projected art, and we strolled around the National Rose Garden before the sun set.

Enlighten Canberra

During our mid-semester break (“spring break” in America), Sami, Ashley, and I went on a nine-day nonstop here-there-everywhere big fat Adventure with a capital A. And I mean everywhere: Great Ocean Road, Adelaide, Kangaroo Island, the Sunshine Coast, and Brisbane.

We rented a car and drove the Great Ocean Road, starting and ending in Geelong, a small town outside of Melbourne. The landscape changed so much throughout the drive: one minute we’re in a picturesque, stereotypical Australian coastline, the next we’re driving through something that looks like the American midwest, all rolling hills and happy cows. We even took an easy hike through a sliver of rainforest called Mait’s Rest. Our last destination of the day was backdropped by the most beautiful sunset I have ever laid eyes on.

Sunset at Bay of Islands
Sam, Ash, and Cate take Australia!
Bay of Islands, just a couple minutes after the first photograph

These photos of Bay of Islands are unfiltered and unedited–can you believe it?!

Our next destination, Kangaroo Island, was absolutely surreal as well. True to its name, kangaroos were hopping all over the island. We spotted a koala up high snacking on some eucalyptus leaves when we stopped our car on the side of the road to sit among some grazing kangaroos and wallabies. At Seal Bay, colonies of sea lions were knocked out on the sand, beyond exhausted from hunting for days on end while migrating to warmer waters.

There’s so much to say about each place that it’s not enough for one post. Stay tuned for more blog posts packed with details and photos of places I visited and things I did throughout the semester! If you have any questions about Australia or traveling on a student budget/schedule, drop me a question in the comments below!

To top off the semester, I gallivanted around Australia one last time in between my two final exams. I took a solo trip to the gorgeous city of Melbourne (say it with me, fellow Americans: /Mel•bin/). Melbourne reminds me quite a bit of Austin, the city of my home uni. The city has a world-famous alley culture: graffiti artists, live music, coffee shops and bars made the laneways an entertaining place to be.

I made the trek out of Melbourne’s main city district on the first chilly morning of my trip to see the colorful Brighton Bathing Boxes. The 82 quirky little houses sit on a bay right next to a nice neighborhood. Being one of Australia’s most famous landmarks many tourists such as myself walk along the bay and snap photos sitting on the steps of a house. All of the doors were locked though, and I joined some other curious little kids in trying to peer through the cracks of the wooden doors to see what was inside. Later research brought me to this website that shows what the spaces inside of some of the “bathing boxes” were actually like. They’re nothing like the grimy shower stalls that I imagined them to be on my walk that morning.

And just like that, my semester in Australia drew to an end. I flew back from Melbourne and took my last final exam. At last, I felt ready to return to Texas, but the goodbyes were still bittersweet, and I still chased sunrises and sunsets at the beach until my last day there. All four of my roommates saw me off to the airport at 5am, a really touching gesture considering about half of them aren’t morning people at all. Sudiksha made me homemade chai tea from scratch one last time as I scrambled to pack the morning of my flight. As my Uber ride and I sat in traffic, a rainbow gave me one last extravagant show of Australian beauty, and then I was home.

After 35 hours of traveling, of course.

Standing on the brink of another semester at UT–my first semester back from Australia and my third year of undergrad–I feel reinvigorated and recentered. The first two years of college burned me out quite a bit. Studying abroad was exactly what I needed to get a fresh perspective on my career path and break me out of the haze my tunnel vision had put me in. But there will still be days when I buy into the trap of losing myself in the bustle of college, taking shelter in the inertia of my chaotic little routine, forgetting to breathe. I will momentarily forget the lessons Australia has taught me. But it’s in these moments that I must look back and remember that there should always be a little bit of (metaphorical and literal) sand in my book bag from the little adventures that happen in between the daily grind. Looking back, I’m still learning new things from experiences and conversations I had months prior. Today, this lesson in particular is on my mind:

Make time for the people and things that fill you with uncontainable gratitude.

Thanks for reading, mate!

a sweet surprise–found out I have Aussie cousins!
Spent my last morning in Australia watching the sun make its daily grand entrance at Coogee Beach

P.S. As I was editing this blog post, Rachel, a fellow American exchange student I met through the LEI field trip, messaged our group chat and told us that she just washed the sand out of her bookbag and almost cried. Getting sentimental about finding Australian ocean sediment in our stuff is a thing, I guess. #relatable

Thank you again to my BBA Exchange advisor Josh Rucker, the Presidential Scholars Program who provided me with the Individual Opportunity Scholarship, my friends, and my family!