I’m used to moving around. I grew up in London and then left for college in California when I was 18, at which point my parents moved to the east coast of the US. It was a difficult transition and the situation at home (wherever that was) wasn’t always easy, but I adapted and grew to love where I was. This all meant that I wasn’t too worried about being so far from home while abroad. I felt prepared; but what I wasn’t prepared for were the unexpected difficulties that would arise during my time in Australia.
I arrived at the Sydney airport for orientation on a Monday morning after about 23 hours of flying. We had a busy first day exploring the city and then we were piled about six people (and a lot of luggage) to a room for the first real night of sleep in days. I went to bed in my hostel bunk bed that night exhausted and excited for what was to come.
The following morning I awoke to the news that my dog had died. Some may sympathize with the significance of this, others may not… it’s ‘just’ a dog. But he had been a part of my life since I was 9 years old, and he was also the one constant that felt like home amidst all of the moving. He had been sick, and I was fairly certain that I was not going to see him again after I left. I had actually said my final goodbye in the Portland, Maine airport before boarding the first of three flights to Sydney. But he had been so strong throughout the time that I was home, so for it to happen so immediately after I left was a shock. What made it harder was that I didn’t know anyone yet. I didn’t want others’ first impression of me to be “the girl who cried during orientation because her dog just died”, but I also could not pretend I was okay.
I am not always comfortable going to others for comfort, or being an emotional burden, especially with people I don’t know, but this situation forced me to do so and I was better for it. That night IFSA took us on a boat cruise around Sydney harbor. It was a beautiful evening, and I took the opportunity to share with some of my new peers the news that I had received that morning. I was met with warmth, compassion and kind words. I felt at peace that night, and I felt that he was at peace too.
The phone call we all dread
The next hurdle arose during a most spectacular adventure during the mid-semester break. A few of my IFSA peers and I planned an ambitious road trip to Uluru in the Northern Territory. From Uluru we drove to King’s Canyon, and this part of the trip was unsurprisingly met with a lack of cell service. For a couple of days I had no signal and the lodge we stayed at in King’s Canyon did not have Wi-Fi.
The following day we hiked the rim of King’s Canyon, the base of which has a small hut with limited internet (in order to contact others before embarking on long expeditions). We all frantically got out our phones to see what we had missed in the brief blackout period. A swarm of messages began bombarding my phone, most of which came from my parents and were along the lines of: “Can you call us?”. My mind immediately leapt to worst case scenario, and then just as immediately began convincing myself that everything was okay. I was reluctant to call because I was in a small enclosed space surrounded by other people, and also because I knew that if it wasn’t too serious, they could text me, but if I had to call, something was wrong. My mom eventually called me, I answered. The short version: my dad was in the hospital and was going to be having open heart surgery that day. My heart jumped and my stomach dropped. The worst part was that I had no idea at what point I would have signal again in order to know if he was okay.
I tried really hard to appreciate the beauty of that day, but it was not easy. It was a stunning location, but I also felt guilty for enjoying it while my family was struggling. I explained to my friends what was happening, I felt bad for them… what were they supposed to say in response? But they lifted me up. They gave me space and they gave me comfort. I had signal that night, I spoke to my dad right before he went into surgery and woke up the next morning to the news that all went well and he was in recovery.
A sombre birthday
The day after we returned from our trip was my 21st birthday. I woke up that day with a hollow feeling in my stomach. My father was still in the hospital and the highs and lows of the break had left me exhausted and not quite in the mood to celebrate what felt like an arbitrary day. Most of my classmates were still away on their holiday adventures and the massive time difference meant that very few friends and family from home reached out until the following day. I tried not to be bothered by this, but it felt very lonely.
One person in my life in particular had not reached out, nor had I heard from her in days. Whilst initially burying my concern about this, I would wake the next morning to learn that she had been in the hospital from an accident a few days prior. Once again, there was nothing I could do. I was late to find out this news and then could not be there for comfort or assistance. Having loved ones in the hospital, thousands of miles away, does not make for a particularly celebratory birthday. I felt beaten down. To close out the day I talked into the early hours of the following morning with a friend from the IFSA program. We shared stories of love and loss, and I was reminded that everyone is carrying their own heavy burden that we cannot always see.
These are not the highlights of my time abroad… but despite these moments I truly had the greatest semester of my life and I will never forget it. In the end, these events all helped me grow and truly embrace the community I was in. I became comfortable being open and vulnerable with others and this made the friendships I formed abroad more powerful and lasting. I didn’t expect these things to happen while I was in Australia, but I also didn’t expect to form such strong and meaningful relationships with the people I met there. People that would help me get through those moments and grow from them and develop into a more open and self-assured human being. I returned to my final year of college with much to reflect on and a new level of maturity that I will take with me into the future beyond graduation.
Helena Essex is a Politics major at Pomona College and studied abroad with IFSA at The University of Melbourne in Melbourne, Australia in Spring 2019.