The exact opposite side of the world from where I live is in the Indian Ocean, a little southwest of Australia.
And I got pretty close.
I wasn’t expecting many obvious differences when I got there, since Australians speak English and I assumed the culture was relatively similar to America’s. But there’s more to culture besides the superficial; you will change subconsciously, subtly over time. Despite having a physical disability, there were only a few times I encountered things that were not logistically feasible for me. I finally learned firsthand that that cliché—if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything—is true.
If I could feasibly complete both my degrees on time and go anywhere in the world, why wouldn’t I take that opportunity?
Although I was never away from my parents for more than a couple days before college, I didn’t really suffer from any homesickness when I first went off to college. Similarly, when I moved to Australia for five months, it was the same as being away from them in Pennsylvania, regardless of distance. The communication was a little harder, as I was in a time zone twelve hours ahead of them, but it was manageable. I talked to them in the early morning and evening, just to let them know I was doing okay. I used my Wi-Fi and mobile data sparingly, since I was used to unlimited internet usage with a flat fee every month. Video calling wasn’t too common—I learned that Skype uses an inexcusable amount of bandwidth and that WeChat was actually one of the best apps for us to use.
Encountering Unexpected Changes
Despite my assumptions, I encountered some huge differences while abroad. But I’ve learned to not focus negatively on those differences, but rather embrace them. These are some of the changes I encountered.
- Don’t expect to get lunch at a restaurant, unless it’s fast food. Most places close down in the middle of the day and reopen for dinner, which is around 5 or 6 pm. That was quite a shocker to me the day we landed in Sydney in the afternoon and wanted something to eat.
- Things close early. I used to think that my Target in Pennsylvania closed early (9pm), but not anymore knowing everything in Australia closes around 5pm. In the suburbs, stores would stay open later, like 8pm, only on Thursdays (Fridays in the city center).
- Australians shorten everything. Many words will end in “-ie,” “-y” or “-o,” which might be a little jarring at first. Eating “Maccas” instead of “McDonalds,” going to “Freo” instead of “Fremantle,” or grabbing “brekkie” instead of “breakfast,” just to name a few. Learn some of the slang beforehand, and it might be a bit easier to understand them.
I grew up 20 miles outside of New York City, and developed an apathetic attitude when it comes to strangers and tourists. However, almost all the Australians I encountered were some of the kindest people I’ve ever met. Complete strangers are willing to help you and give you advice on how to best experience something. I met a man on Rottnest Island who introduced us to some quokkas (the best animal in the world) and told us where the best beaches were on the island.
Since being back in the States, I’ve definitely noticed some Australian habits I picked up while in Oz. I’ve adopted a less-worried attitude about a lot of things. I used to be someone who had to plan every single detail, and if they were not followed exactly, then the whole plan was ruined. I’ve learned to be more independent—and I don’t need to run every idea by my parents. While I still like to be in control, I’m okay with straying from the original idea. If something doesn’t turn out the way I wanted, it’ll still be a good story to tell, and I’ve learned that stories and journeys are far more important than material objects.
I Can Go to Australia – Or Anywhere in the World
When I first started researching where I would go for my study away experience, many people thought I wouldn’t do a whole semester. With my two completely distinct majors, how would I have the time to just “fool around in another country” for a semester? Or, why not go somewhere in the U.S. like New Orleans or the Navajo reservations? My response was that if I could feasibly complete both my degrees on time and go anywhere in the world, why wouldn’t I take that opportunity?
The same people who assumed I would commute to college were concerned about me studying abroad at all. But my wheelchair shouldn’t limit my opportunities to experience this world to the fullest. Sure, there were a few hurdles I had to deal with—some with my parents’ help and some by myself—but I survived them all.
And who doesn’t like a good challenge every once in a while?
While some people thought this experience might make me want to stay home forever afterwards, it’s done the exact opposite. I want to travel to Japan, Hong Kong, and South Africa. I want to do all the tourist-y things in New York with my friends. I want to explore my one square mile of a town in Pennsylvania and throw pebbles in the river.
If I regret anything while abroad, it’s that I didn’t go out and do enough—and I was out exploring almost every single weekend. If I learned anything in the five months I was in Australia, it’s that taking the easy path is seldom the most fulfilling. Whether it be enjoying Pancake Fridays with friends from all over the world, or finding an island filled with wild kangaroos, I never took a moment for granted. I watched the sun set over the Indian Ocean and travelled on the train just for the view, and I found myself doing that more and more as my days in Perth grew fewer.
I’ve learned that stories and journeys are far more important than material objects.
But after a good number of months back home, I’m no longer sad. Australia is now that old friend who taught me more things than it’ll ever know. And while I won’t see it for a while, it’ll always be there for me, arms open and ready for adventure.
This is part 5 of Exploring the World From a Seated Position: Studying Abroad with a Physical Disability. For more insights into the study abroad experience for students with disabilities, read Part 3 and Part 4.