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Abroad, yet right at home

Life sometimes takes us to unexpected places. If on Easter Sunday a year ago someone had told me I would be spending Easter 2000 in Hobart, Tasmania, I wouldn't have believed him. I decided to study abroad late in my University career — and only four weeks before I left, when I actually bought the ticket, did I realize I could no longer change my mind. But after three months in Australia, I've realized what an important part of my education it's been.

First of all, for anyone considering studying abroad, it's not easy. I walked up to the desk at my temporary housing my first day in Melbourne in February, and learned they would not take my credit card. Fresh off the plane after not sleeping for 24 hours, I was suddenly stuck with no cash and a hostile desk clerk. I burst into tears. It was not one of my finer moments. As I walked down to a bank, had people look at me strangely once I opened my mouth — foreigner! — and asked to change travelers' checks having no idea what denominations Australian currency even came in, a realization came to me: I was absolutely alone, on the other side of the world from Princeton, wondering what the hell I had done.


I'm still not entirely sure of what I'm doing sometimes. My decision to study abroad was absolutely serendipitous, and to a large degree, urged on me by others who'd had a good experience, or else were trying to get rid of me for a semester. But eventually the human survival gene kicks in, and you learn to adjust and make the best of what can be a very lonely situation. My way of doing this has been traveling all over the Australian continent.

And that is how I came to be in Hobart on Easter Sunday. As part of a 12-day Easter break trip, I took the ferry across the Bass Strait to Devenport, then traveled down the eastern coast of Tassie — as they call it here — to take another ferry to Maria Island. This old convict island is now a complete wilderness, off the coast of Tasmania, another island wilderness, which is off the coast of Australia, which is basically at the end of the world. I kept having that thought: I am at the end of the world. Tasmania is still wild. A third of the island has been designated a world heritage area for its temperate rain forest, and the rest of the island is rolling hills and rocky mountains punctuated by cows, lavender farms and small towns with names like Paradise. My tour group traveled to Freycinet National Park, with the oh-so-photographable Wineglass Bay, then down to Hobart, a little city on a harbor, living under the shadow of towering Mt. Wellington.

Late April is mid-autumn here, and the imported British trees were all changing color (the native eucalyptus trees do not). After visiting Hobart, we traveled to Mt. Field and trudged up it, through the mud and snow, then traveled to Lake St. Clair and hiked part of the Overland Track toward Cradle Mountain. It was so cold in the morning I'd slip on ice on the trail, and one night the tents froze shut. It was OA with a vengeance — but so beautiful it absolutely took my breath away. After several days of hiking with our packs, the group split up, and armed only with a compass, I trudged out through unmarked paths up the rocky hills of central Tasmania.

It's so strange looking at a landscape that's absolutely untouched by civilization, seeing no sign of other humans anywhere, being days from any towns or roads. Like my first day in Melbourne, I was all alone again, but looking up at the cliffs of Mt. Geryon and the Acropolis rock formation, I realized how much I'd grown to like it.

Studying abroad makes you rely on yourself. That can be difficult, but it can be absolutely liberating as well. You don't have to answer to anyone — your family and friends and old life are on the other side of the world. You learn what you are capable of — I survived being lost in the outback monsoon vine forest up near Kakadu National Park, and I saved a girl from going over the top of a waterfall when we were swimming in an isolated pool up in Australia's tropical north. I ran up to lookouts on Cradle Mountain because the cold was so harsh running was the only way to keep warm, and I conquered my fear of heights by climbing the sheer face of Ayers Rock aided only by a chain and hiking boots with a good grip.

Life will be different living in New York this summer, I'm sure, working at a desk job from 9 to 5. I suppose that's more typical of what my life will be like. Eventually I'll have to settle down, but this semester, studying abroad has been an adventure education I'm most grateful for having. Laura Vanderkam is a Wilson School major from Granger, Ind. She can be reached at