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College and Uni: Going from Liberal Arts to Abroad

There’s been a lot of new slang I’ve had to learn since coming to Australia. Usually, everything is shortened and that was the case with the word university. The word college is basically non-existent here and even saying university can be a bit of a stretch. No, the word Aussies prefer is short and sweet when it comes to their schooling: Uni. That’s only the beginning of the differences between small liberal arts colleges in the U.S. and giant universities across Australia. Being in classes for two weeks now, I’ve slowly adapted to the giant lecture style classes and more independent teaching method found here at the University of Adelaide, and hope I can provide some insight for future liberal arts students looking to study abroad.

First off, it has just been plain bizarre even being back in classes when I see my friends posting photos on Facebook hanging out on the beach, going to concerts, and enjoying their summer when I’m off to my 10:00 AM lecture in 50 degree weather. Getting back into the school work grind is a process in itself, but throw in an entirely new university and teaching system and it becomes a whole new journey. The biggest course I was ever in at F&M had about 35 people in it while the biggest lecture I have here in Adelaide has about 150 students. So besides the obvious size difference, what are the big differences in course work, teaching method, and overall university life in Australia versus that in the U.S.?

Botanical Gardens 1-7.17.16

  1. Specialization Begins Immediately: Going to a small liberal arts college in the U.S., you’re expected and even required to take courses outside of your major. That being said you don’t even have to decide your major until the end of your sophomore year. In Australia, students began specializing in an area of study immediately when they get into Uni. That isn’t to say that there isn’t leeway or that students can’t switch into a different area of study if they want, but you wouldn’t find an Australian student specializing in chemistry taking a literature course on the side. It’s been pretty amusing when Australians ask what classes I’m taking and the confusion I receive when I tell them my courses range from Animal Science to English to Anthropology. That being said, it’s also been a little tough going into some classes like my Conservation and Restoration course with students who have already received a lot of background information in the subject area because it’s been their area of study, and their only area of study, since their first year.
  2. Grades are Often Dependent on a Few Essays, Exams, or Projects: Back at F&M your grade is dependent a a number of things ranging from attendance, participation, homework, short essays, presentations, projects quizzes, exams, and more. Take away attendance, participation, homework, short essays and quizzes, and you’ll have what you’re being graded on at the University of Adelaide. That’s not to say that you won’t have homework readings or that you never have to go to class. It’s just to say that these things are expected of you and that you won’t be graded on them. In all of my classes I have either one big group project, essay, or exam that seems to make up a very large part of my overall grade. It definitely requires a lot more planning and time management since your professors are not as on top of your work.
  3. Attendance is Much More Lenient: My Conservation and Restoration professor started off his third lecture by asking international students to raise their hands. Myself and two other students raised our hands and he asked us if we noticed a drop in attendance in lecture by the second week. We all nodded and he chuckled saying, “you three may be the only ones here next week.” Of course he was joking but he then proceeded to ask us if attendance was a big part of our grades back home. For me, attendance has never been anything less than mandatory, with some exceptions. In Australia, going to lecture is very much an independent choice. Attendance isn’t taken and all lectures are recorded online. A lot of Australian professors use their lectures as a time to elaborate on course material or give more general information that will be covered more extensively in tutorials which are when the lecture classes break into smaller groups to discuss lectures. Again, there is a much heavier emphasis on independent study and participation.
  4. There’s Little Dorming on Campus: Students in Australia don’t have hundreds of colleges to choose from like we do in the U.S.. Often students will just choose the Uni closest to them and commute. There isn’t “on-campus dorming” per say. In the city of Adelaide there are student accommodations which is where I live with many other international students, but many Australians just commute from home or get their own apartment close to campus.
  5. There is A LOT more Independent Study: Because grades are dependent on only a few things, it’s easy to feel like there’s little or no work to do on a day to day basis. Professors will give you a syllabus and a little instruction, but the rest is all up to you. There is a lot more independent research and study that must go into preparing for essays, exams, and even lectures.
  6. Where did all this Free Time come From?: Back at F&M, studying was the main activity done at night during the week. You’d find your friends and find a spot to curl up and do some reading or studying whether it be in the library, an empty classroom, college center, or the campus cafe. At the University of Adelaide, once the time passes 6:00 PM the campus becomes completely abandoned. You won’t find any Australians staying behind to finish up a reading or working on some last minute writing assignments. They follow a very simple mantra that work is for the day and night is the time to play. It definitely has taken me quite sometime to get used to this idea. School work seemed like a 24/7 job at F&M and here I find myself finishing my readings in between classes or over lunch. It isn’t that the work is less challenging, it’s that there’s nothing else going on during the day besides work, and everything extracurricular is usually happening at night or on the weekends.
  7. It Can be Harder to Find your Own Community on Campus: This last difference has personally hit me the hardest since coming to the University of Adelaide, and I’ve only realized this week why it’s happened. Back at that small liberal arts college in the U.S., you eat, sleep, and breathe your campus community. You live in the personal bubble that is your college and that quickly becomes your home. I would wake up in my house with the same people I see in class and the same people I come back to hang out with at night. Everyone knows or recognizes each other. You live in a small niche and find where you belong and who you belong with incredibly quickly. People in Australia find it funny how much college pride U.S. universities have and I think a huge reason for this is the fact that they don’t live on campus. F&M is my home away from home because I’ve made a second family there for school year. Australians continue to keep their communities from high school, or they consider their neighborhood their immediate community. Since being here I haven’t felt as much a part of the University as much as I’ve felt a part of the international community because those are the people I live with and experience life with on a regular basis. The idea of uni here is much more independent than the community life you experience back into the U.S. and that’s not to say it’s a bad thing. If anything I’ve felt more liberated to do things outside of classes and extend my comfort zone from those familiar campus life activities.

The whole point of going abroad is to experience new things and the classes are no exception. Embracing the differences and learning to adapt is the true key to making the most of my experience and yours too.

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