I went to Europe and all I got was this sense of empowerment

Passports and Prosts: How university exchange changed my worldview

We’ve all heard those jokes about girls who take a vacation to Europe and come back saying they’ve had a spiritual awakening. In fact, all of my friends teased me about it when I first announced I’d be leaving for the UK last September. At the time, I simply rolled my eyes. Regardless of what I had said when I first decided to enrol in my university’s study abroad program, my decision to go overseas had little to do with wanting to be a better person. 

…my decision to go overseas had little to do with wanting to be a better person.

Like thousands of Australian students who go on exchange every year, part of going abroad was about broadening my horizons and having something novel and shiny to put on my resumé. But it was also about taking six months off to relax a little and enjoy everything Europe had to offer. From walking fashionable London streets to taking weekend trips to France, I imagined my time away from home to be fun and exciting, but never life-changing. 

And while all those things did happen, those six months also turned to be incredibly formative. 

Of course, the first benefit everyone mentions about exchange programs is independence. Despite considering myself fairly well-travelled, I was definitely heavily reliant on my parents before my departure. Whether it be cooking, cleaning or driving me places, they were always there to help me out. 

However, as soon as I waved them off and prepared myself for my 20-hour flight, I realised I was on my own. I had to scramble to find the correct gate, go through security checks and sit through the take-off all by myself. Once in the UK, it was up to me to plan my time, to take initiative and to find my way around the city. While my parents were just a phone call away, they were also on the other side of the world. Consequently, when it came to finding a flat to live in, signing the contract and paying the bills, I was left to my own devices. It was daunting at first, but it forced me to grow up. 

Likewise, when I wanted to travel around Europe during my Christmas break, I was the one that had to buy the right tickets, book hotels and find places to go. Whether it be grocery shopping in German, finding the correct buses in French or ordering food at a restaurant in Italian, simple tasks became challenges I had to overcome. As a result, I have no problems creating a budget and sticking to it, or asking for help when I need it. I returned to Australia feeling more confident, and with life-skills that will serve me for the rest of my life. Not to mention I had an unforgettable experience and got to know people from all over the world. 

Whether it be grocery shopping in German, finding the correct buses in French or ordering food at a restaurant in Italian, simple tasks became challenges I had to overcome.

Despite all this, the biggest lessons had nothing to do with lease contracts or language barriers. The most significant way in which studying abroad impacted me is by showing me what university could actually be like. Before leaving Australia, I was pretty uninvolved with campus culture and events. Abroad, I had no other responsibilities but to study and have fun, and my commute to class was only 15 minutes— a drastic difference from the one-hour it took back home. This meant I was more inclined to put myself out there and go to every event I possibly could. 

One of the first things I realised from this is that young people in the UK are much more aware and involved in the socio-political landscape than in Australia. I first got a taste of this as Extinction Rebellion almost disrupted my flight into Heathrow Airport. Twelve climate activists were flying drones in an attempt to divert planes away. Though in the end they failed to do so, the act certainly brought attention to the cause. At the time I remember being slightly annoyed and concerned about my flight, but admired the courage and intensity of their actions – something I hadn’t really seen back in Perth. 

This is a trend that further continued through my time abroad. Not only did the university have countless social-impact clubs for seemingly endless causes, it took an active role in student wellbeing and community issues. One club dedicated itself to collecting and distributing surplus food to people in need, another campaigned for cheaper student accommodation, and the Students’ Union even had enough power to achieve £1 bus tickets for all students across the city. 

This culminated with university strikes all across the country, where 43,000 workers from 60 UK universities went on strike over pay, pensions and working conditions. 

I can still remember getting the email about it in November 2019. I was confused at first, then shocked. How could a university with over 20,000 students just shut down? Over the course of eight days, classes were suspended, lectures cancelled and buildings all over campus were occupied. The strikes drew in masses, with the media covering them extensively. A significant number of students showed their support, abstaining from the remaining classes or joining the staff during strikes in solidarity. It was the first time I realised that as students, we can have a real impact on our universities. 

Coming back to Perth, I realised I wanted to make a difference. I vowed to myself that, much like in the UK, I would make an active effort to go to events and get involved in issues that I cared about. I attended Orientation Day and signed up for every club that interested me and instantly subscribed to the university’s volunteering newspaper. Now I’m interning at a large not-for-profit organisation that helps people with drug and alcohol abuse. I’m also working with new friends to start a Vegan Society at university, none of which would be happening if I hadn’t gone overseas. 

At the time I remember being slightly annoyed and concerned about my flight, but admired the courage and intensity of their actions – something I hadn’t really seen back in Perth.

In short, studying abroad turned out to be the most educational experience of my time at university so far, and not for the academics. It was the casual conversations I had with the locals, the problem skills that I developed through simple tasks such as taking the Tube and the friends I made along the way that changed my worldview. I came back home feeling sad to have to say goodbye to such an amazing experience, but also with a newfound sense of confidence and empowerment.

Sol is currently studying a Bachelor of Philosophy majoring in Economics at the University of Western Australia. Her hobbies include travelling, drawing and spoiling her dog, Diesel.

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