I’m currently a 21-year-old Neurobiology student, studying at Skidmore College in upstate New York. I also have two minors in Chemistry and Gender Studies respectively. I’m a teaching assistant in the Molecular Biology department as well as a tutor. I also am fortunate enough to be conducting my own research in preventing tumors from spreading. I love just about anything outdoors: hiking, camping, surfing (all of which I did a lot of while abroad), traveling, playing rugby (something I picked up while abroad), and skiing. I’m in the process of finishing my undergraduate studies and am looking forward to applying to graduate school in a few months. I’m also a gay student and am pretty active in fighting for LGBT* equality, mainly doing activism around helping homeless LGBT* youth who have been kicked out of their homes by their families.
Many students look at a map of Australia and don’t know where to go. Why did you choose Melbourne specifically?
Melbourne is the arts capital, the sporting capital, the science capital, the cultural capital, and the food capital of Australia. The only capitals it’s not is the political capital (Canberra) and the tourist capital (Sydney)–also known as the two things you don’t want in your capitol to begin with. Melbourne has been voted the most livable city for the past 5 years, something that it definitely deserves. For me, the choice was clear. I chose Melbourne because I wanted to be surrounded Australian culture, but more importantly Australian people. I knew that if I went somewhere like Sydney or the Gold Coast, my experience would be surrounded mostly by tourists as opposed to locals, with whom I could make lasting connections. Melbourne definitely didn’t let me down in that respect. Almost all of the friends that I made while abroad were Australians, all of of whom I’m still close with today. The few other Americans that I encountered were a handful of fellow students who were in Australia to study for a semester like myself.
This isn’t to say that Melbourne isn’t a diverse place. Just the opposite in fact: it’s incredibly multinational. Having grown up right outside of New York City, I thought I knew what a city of blended cultures looked like. But New York has nothing on Melbourne. The city is full of people from every nation imaginable, and more importantly integrated together to make Melbourne a place where I was able to walk down the street where I lived and in 5 minutes hear 10 different languages. Besides for the cultural experience of Melbourne, the second reason I was attracted to studying there was the education. University of Melbourne is the top university in all of Australia and is ranked 44th internationally. I wanted to be in an academic environment that would both challenge me and broaden my educational horizons. The culmination of cultural and academic excellence made choosing Melbourne easy.
How did you find Aussie culture once you were immersed in it?
Honestly, at first I experienced a major culture shock. Australia is deceptive to many Americans. Aussies speak the same language as us, their cities look similar to ours, and on the surface level, their cultural values seem very similar to ours. However, under all of that, Americans and Australians are very different, especially in the way that we interact socially. Two big differences really stick out in my mind. The first is how direct they are. Aussies will always tell you exactly what’s on their mind, and ask you questions expecting direct answers. To Americans I think this can come of a little brazen, as many times we’re a bit more reserved and won’t always say exactly what we mean. The second difference in part relates to the first. Political correctness is not a component of Australian culture at all. I come from a liberal arts school that likes to wear its PC culture on its sleeves, so entering an environment where this isn’t the norm can be a real shock. While both of these differences I found to be difficult to wrap my head around initially, they are actually the two things I miss most about living in Melbourne. Directness becomes extremely comforting once you’re used to it as you know that you’re getting someone’s honest opinion and genuine interest. The lack of political correctness I found to be much healthier as well. While it can seem bold on the surface of things, it actually sparked more deep and important conversations over topics that would be fairly sensitive to talk about in the US. Over all I enjoyed how open and honest Australian culture was, even if it could be a little ostentatious at times.
Many STEM majors don’t think they can study abroad, but you study Neuroscience. How were you able to go abroad?
I went into my freshmen year knowing that I wanted to go abroad, which in my opinion, definitely helped the process work out in the end. When your major is in a STEM field, normally there’s a pretty set course for you to study, so the key to being able to work out going abroad into that is planning things early enough so that you’re able to take all the courses you need. My home university, Skidmore College, really encourages its students to go abroad to become better global citizens and better students. My STEM faculty really encouraged my decision to study in Melbourne, as they recognized the value in having a part of my Neuroscience education be conducted in a country where a tremendous amount of neuro-biologic and neuro-molecular research is done every year. Location is another big factor to consider. In Australia, your science classes will be taught in English, using most of the same terminology that you’ve been taught in the US (Epinephrine and Adrenaline is the one exception I encountered. Americans call it Epinephrine, whereas Aussies say Adrenaline). You’ll also be learning at one of the great Mecca’s for STEM research in the world. These things all make studying abroad with a STEM major much easier than going somewhere where STEM work is not being done on the same scale as in Australia or the US. My main point is this: if you’re a STEM student, you can and should study abroad, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to make it fit.
Did you see any differences in the way science is taught or carried out (i.e. lab practices, etc) in Australia?
While I was in Melbourne, I only took the equivalent to what would be senior level seminars in the US. The four subjects I did were in Stem Cell Biology, Developmental Neurobiology, Virology, and Neuropharmacology. The one major difference that I found from the US across the board was lecture style. For each of these classes I’d have one or two professors that coordinated the class, then each lecture would be given by either other professors or researchers on the topics that they specialized in. So in total, I had roughly eight to ten professors per subject. I really loved this style of teaching because each lecturer was able to really dig into the finer details of what they studied as opposed to a more broad explanation of the class. Another major difference, that I wasn’t as fond of, was grading. In the US, normally you have a multitude of assignments or exams that make up your final grade. In Melbourne, I had a midterm, a final, and maybe a paper. This styling of assessment really ups the ante when it comes to your final grade and is definitely something to be cognizant of while you’re there.
You are also really involved in the LGBT community at your home university. What would you say to LGBT students about study abroad in Melbourne?
First off, I’d say that Melbourne is definitely one of the safer and more LGBT* friendly places that you can travel to while going abroad. No where is without homophobia or transphobia unfortunately, but I definitely felt it way less in Melbourne than I do now living and working in New York. LGBT* life in Melbourne is incredibly diverse with something for everyone. There are really fantastic bars and clubs, drag shows, and special events going on all the time. I’d say if you want to get involved in Melbourne’s LGBT* scene, go to Thursgay, a party thrown in Fitzroy, one of Melbourne’s very trendy neighborhoods at a place called Emporium every Thursday. It’s by far the most relaxed and eclectic venues, full of a bunch of uni-aged people, and is a great way to meet gay and trans* locals to show you around. Be aware that Aussies most likely won’t have an issue if you’re LGBT* in some way, but will probably have a lot of questions. Like I said earlier, Aussies are very direct when it comes to asking questions. The LGBT* scene is fairly segregated from the rest of the bars and culture in Melbourne, so many times people have questions about what it’s like. If it seems a bit too invasive, politely saying you’re not comfortable discussing what ever they’ve brought up will be fine. All in all, Melbourne to Australia, is what San Francisco is to the US. If you’re gay and headed for Melbourne, you’re in for a really awesome time.
Melbourne seems so magical to us here at ISA. Is it really all it’s cracked up to be?
Absolutely. Not to bring up a note of pessimism into all of this, but Melbourne really ruins everywhere else in the world for you. I buffered my transition back to the US with a month long camping trip to New Zealand, but it honestly only did so much to keep my mind off of Melbourne. It’s now been a year since I moved there and there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t think about Melbourne and how much I miss it. I know many of my American friends who studied there feel the same way. We all want to find some way for us to get back there. The combination of amazing people, delicious food, diverse and active nightlife, and a great learning environment makes it, without a doubt, the best place for young adult to spend a semester. You’ll never want to leave.
How has study abroad shaped you on a personal and on a professional level?
After studying there and seeing all of the opportunities in STEM both in terms of careers and further education, I’m applying to pursue my PhD in stem cell biology at University of Melbourne this fall. Depending on how things work out, I’m considering pursuing an MD there as well. Studying in Melbourne showed me that just because I’m an American, it doesn’t mean that I need to be educated or live out my life in the US. There are plenty of other amazing places out there in the world, Melbourne being one of them, where you can build an amazing life for yourself. I think as Americans, we get indoctrinated with the idea that we live in the best country in the world, with the fact that so many people immigrate here as evidence of that. The most valuable thing that studying abroad did for me was to open my mind to the possibility of living as an adult somewhere else, away from the rest of my family, and being happy all at the same time. I came back feeling more confident in my plans, my personal life, and with a stronger conviction to keep an open mind while in search of a place to call home. I can’t think of a better outcome to a study abroad experience.
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