The moment I touched down in Sydney I was overcome with emotion. To this day I struggle to describe how exactly I felt while I was there. The closest that I can get is that I felt utterly and undeniably like I had somehow returned home. This place, this bustling metropolitan city, 10,000 miles away from the snow-covered city that I had previously called home, welcomed me with open arms and has changed me in ways that I continue to discover. But before I talk about where I went, I need to first mention where I came from.
I am a first generation college student at an elite college and often part of the first generation experience is forging your path entirely for yourself. In applying for college I chose the school, went by myself on tours, spent my own application money and ultimately awarded a scholarship that I gained entirely on my own merit. Unfortunately, the first generation experience is often a lonesome one and that burdened uniqueness carried through to my study abroad experience as well. Unlike many of my fellow study abroad alums, study abroad was never in the cards for me. Many students at my home university had the luxury of the assumption that they would in fact spend part of their junior year abroad and they were able to receive advice from close family members about their own previous study abroad experience. For me however, I applied without even once consulting my parents. I knew that study abroad, especially in a city as expensive as Sydney was somewhat a reach considering my family’s financial situation, but for once I pushed aside my rationality and applied and subsequently was accepted to Sydney University through IFSA-Butler. I guess my first lesson from study abroad took place before I even stepped foot outside the country as I learned that you cannot let your perceived situation define or hinder your development. For me, there was no other choice but to study abroad in Australia because this had been my dream for as long as I could remember. I am not sure what sparked my initial interest in Australia, but by the time I was a junior in college I was beyond fed up with imagining myself in Australia and was ready to actually live there.
I chose Sydney because I wanted to be in a city, as this would allow me full exposure to as many people and cross-cultural experiences as possible. What really surprised me was the diversity of the city as I was surrounded by many different ethnicities and cultures. I loved learning aboriginal history in my classes at Sydney Uni and then also experiencing the present-day integration of Australia as more people emigrate from various parts of the world. I knew I wanted to experience these different cultures and I chose to do so through culinary exploration. I never missed an opportunity to try out different cuisine, from authentic Thai and Japanese food to foreign meats like kangaroo and of course there was the famed Vegemite, which I have surprisingly developed a strong affinity for. I found that food played an integral role in shaping my love for Sydney as it exposed me to different cultures and provided me an opportunity to interact with locals. The food culture of Sydney is very different from that of America as it placed greater emphasis on higher quality ingredients and just seemed to have a greater sense of integrity. Funny enough it was the food culture that had the most effect on my academic life, as it has influenced me to pursue nutrition after college.
Another unique part to my study abroad experience was that I spent the entire 6-months in Sydney. Travel was not in my budget and as devastated as I was when other American students were making plans to travel to Thailand or the Gold Coast for break, the time I spent alone in Sydney was the most enlightening and changed the entire trajectory of what I wanted to get out of study abroad. There is nothing like exploring a new city on your own. No time schedules, no compromising to please others, and no judgment – just you and your own desire to explore. I woke up everyday at 8 AM, made a goal for the day, loaded my bus ticket and just went on my way. I gained new perspective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, was blown away by the beautiful landscape during my walk from Bondi to Coogee beach, appreciated a good book on the beach and of course indulged in as much food as I wanted. During that time a seed of strength and independence was planted in me and for the rest of my stay in Sydney and beyond I continue to nurse that seed through new experiences.
Study abroad was an absolutely life changing experience for me as it helped me to become a better, more independent person who is capable of making connections with a diverse range of people. I am intimately bonded with Sydney, as this was the place of my coming-of-age as I shed the insecurities that have plagued me for years and found a greater sense of purpose to my life.
Chenara Seepersad is a student at Hamilton College and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at the University of Sydney in 2013.