For my STEP Signature Project, I travelled throughout North Queensland, Australia in May 2016 to study sustainable development and the relationship between human societies and the environment. My study abroad trip focused on The Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, the Great Barrier Reef, Aboriginal culture, the Outback, and the current states of the Australian environment and society. The majority of my time in Australia was spent exploring these environments with local experts and conducting field experiments.
I experienced a change in my attitude towards being open to new experiences and meeting new people. When I have traveled in the past, I rarely sought out outdoor activities or planned trips to remote locations. I have always enjoyed being outdoors, but I don’t think I would’ve ever looked into finding hiking trails or going camping for a weekend before I went on this trip. As a result of this program, I have started valuing these types of experiences as much as I would value visiting cities. I also became more comfortable with conducting scientific research. As a political science and business major, I was nervous about the coursework. Though it was challenging at times, I enjoyed learning about things that I normally wouldn’t when on campus. I also became more comfortable with talking to new people. I do consider myself an extrovert, but I often found myself being more open with others than I would normally do so.
Traveling abroad has allowed me to learn more about myself and gain a better understanding of the experiences that have influenced my personal beliefs and views. As for this study abroad experience, I really came to realize that lot of my personal values and goals are heavily influenced by the fact that I have grown up in the United States. I put a lot of value on pursing higher education and continuously staying busy with student organizations and internships so that I can be competitive job candidate. Ever since I was a child, I have planned to go straight to college after high school and then either join the workforce or go to graduate school after receiving a Bachelors degree. Before I went to Australia, I had always believed my plan to always be in school or working was the simply the result of personal motivations. However, when I was in Australia I realized that other cultures put more emphasis on things like travel and finding a balance between work and life. If I had grown up in another country, my personal values would probably be the same but my personal goals and plans would likely be different.
What Led to the Transformation
The interactions I had and the relationships I built in Australia allowed me to gain a better understanding of my past experiences and myself. We were constantly with local guides and we also met a lot of European backpackers while traveling the country. We often discussed American stereotypes and what live in the US actually looks like compared to other parts of the world. I noticed that the lack of work life balance in the US is more evident than I had imagined. I came to appreciate other ways of thinking and question a lot of the ideas that have been with me my entire life. I really enjoyed talking to Americans who are living in Australia or New Zealand because I had great conversations with them about life outside of the US and they were able relate to my own experiences.
The outdoor activities really led to the change in my openness to new experiences. Our first stop at Magnetic Island included a full day of intense hiking and it was one of my favorite days on the trip. When I was reflecting on this day, I realized that if I had been travelling on my own, I would have never considered spending a whole day hiking on an island. Another activity that led to the transformation was the time I spent camping at an old gold mine in the Australian Outback. Before this trip, I had only camped in my backyard. To my surprise, I loved camping in the Outback even though there were snakes, spiders, lots of dirt, and a rocky bed. A portion of my trip was spent with a homestay family, the Borgerts, on a farm. While I was with the Borgerts, I got to learn more about farm animals and the sustainability efforts. After staying on their farm, I realized that I wouldn’t mind doing farm work if I were to ever return to Australia on a working holiday visa.
The experiments conducted on the trip helped me develop new skills and challenge myself academically. The first scientific experiment we conducted was on the Great Barrier Reef at Magnetic Island. We removed algae from corals because they were taking light from the Reef and then compared various methods to find the most effective one. This experiment was very straightforward and I was able to see the results of our work firsthand. The second experiment involved setting up areas and collecting fresh koala feces to estimate the koala population on Magnetic Island. The last experiment we did involved counting fish in different zones of the Great Barrier Reef. This experiment was much more challenging than the previous ones, but I felt like I had developed the skills needed to work on the report by this point in the trip.
Why is the Transformation Significant?
I think this transformation is especially valuable for my personal life and future goals, because it opened up my desire to travel abroad for longer periods of time and to look into taking a gap year after graduation or before graduate school to travel. I have always valued traveling, but I only made time for it if it involved schoolwork or an internship. I had heard of people taking gap years to travel, but that idea always seemed outrageous to me because I couldn’t imagine not working or studying for that long of a period of time. Before this trip, I had never met someone who went abroad to just travel for longer than summer break. When I was in Australia, I met a lot of backpackers who were traveling through the country and also locals who had been on extended trips to Europe. Through talking to these people, I realized that traveling for extended periods of time can be beneficial and the skills you develop can be useful in future careers. Going forward, I expect this change to influence my behavior because I will look for experiences that offer more than just tangible benefits and a way to better balance work with what I love doing in life. I also think I would be much more comfortable working abroad because of this experience. I have always wanted to work for an international organization or corporation, but I would’ve been much more hesitant to take on an international opportunity before I experienced this transformation.
The coursework for this trip challenged me academically and forced me to go outside of my comfort zone. Some of the topics we focused on were related to my studies, but the majority involved environmental science and conduction experiences. I think this was extremely beneficial for me because I was able to use skills and think in ways that I normally don’t get to. I think this experience will be very beneficial in the future when I either enter the workforce or attend graduate school, because I will need to come up with new ideas and solutions to problems.