Guest post by Sydney Zeldes, Foster Undergraduate who participated in an exchange with the University of Sydney in Sydney, Australia.
For the entirety of the year before I left in February, I told my friends, and my family, and my colleagues, and anyone else that would listen, that I was going to study in Sydney, Australia at the University of Sydney.
The usual responses were “Oh that’s great! Ha! Your name is Sydney!” (Trust me, this one gets old quick), “Bring me back a koala!” (Pretty sure this one’s very, very illegal), “Be careful! All the poisonous creatures in the world live in Australia” (If you ask an Australian, they are more scared of bears than anything that lives on their continent), or “Kangaroos! They have pouches! There are marsupials!” (Can confirm).
Due to my lack of much research beyond what I’d heard, I arrived in Australia expecting weird/poisonous animals and nice beaches. I didn’t expect that the people would be the friendliest and most helpful people I’ve ever met. I didn’t know how amazing the coffee would be (Italians came to Australia after WWII, bringing great espresso with them). I didn’t know anything about Australian politics. Australians know more about American politics than most Americans.
I almost feel I owe an apology to Australia for stereotyping it into marsupials and beaches. I am sorry that my roommate though Kuala-Lumpur was an airport in Bangkok. I am sorry for the large, loud group of exchange students in the city’s dive bars and for the ones who will come to Sydney and leave having never talked to an Australian.
I’m sorry, because every country deserves tourists to come with an open mind, and to learn instead of judge. We can do better. We can research the country we are going to. We can talk to the locals. We can put our cameras down, our selfie sticks away, and experience the country through our own eyes, not an Instagram filter.
I met the nicest folks in remote Einsley, a town of 26, near Copperfield Gorge. Our van had broken down because we made the poor call to take a 2-wheel drive into the outback. The owner of the campground, at which we were the only customers, accepted clueless tourists, engaging in sincere interested conversation with us. He helped us fix our van and showed us a beautiful hidden swimming hole.
You don’t experience a country in the tourist traps. You experience a country lost in the outback and meeting the people who live their entire lives in the tiny, scenic towns that only see a handful of tourists a year. You experience the country jumping off nameless rock cliffs only the locals know how to find. And you only know how to get there because you stepped out of your comfort zone.
As exchange students, we should all have a goal to learn, engage, and immerse in our host country. Doing just this allowed me to come back knowing more about myself than I ever thought possible, and to return a better global citizen who won’t make the same mistake again.