As a third year English geology student, I decided to broaden my university and travel experiences by taking on a foreign exchange program. Deciding on Perth, Australia, I embarked upon a year abroad on July 16th 2015, intending to stay for a glorious year of sun, surf and self-growth. What I left with six months later were memories of getting bollocked for dropping in on a local, housing woes, and declining mental health.
Things went wrong from day one. My Unihell resident advisor (aka freedom destroyer supreme) cheerfully showed me to my room which, if the website was anything to go by, I expected to be of reasonable quality matching the nearly $400/w price tag. The room I entered was damp, smelt of mould, and featured cheery asbestos warning signs. I was also forced to endure building works 15m away, 8am-5pm, six days a week. Add to the deal dysfunctional heating, and you could describe my lodgings to be absolutely woeful – especially when, a few days after arriving, I came down with the flu.
Most insufferable perhaps was the prohibition on drinking in public areas past 9pm. On the occasions I did, I was ‘told off’ by my peers and generally acutely mollycoddled. I decided to get out. Along with three other Unihell mutineers, two weeks in we finally escaped to settle in Northbridge. This small victory came only after battling indifferent admin staff to escape our contracts, thereby missing much of the important first weeks of term.
Things improved from here – but study life was still marred by extremely badly organised, high student:teacher ratio classes (I’m looking at you, School of Environment). We also experienced great difficulty integrating in any meaningful ways with locals.
This wasn’t for lack of trying. Whereas most Europeans move away from home early and need to find new friends, many Australians seem to stay in their home city, often with parents, continuing on their friendships from childhood. This essentially creates an impenetrable barrier for people like us. For me, as for many of my fellow exchangees, Perth appeared as an inescapable dull vacuum devoid of culture, with transport links that made getting anywhere a joyless, frustrating quest – often with little reward at the end of it. Seeing wondrous Facebook updates from friends on other exchanges and feeling trapped in the most remote city on earth, it took a long time to come to terms with the fact that it’s okay to be unhappy and better to face it than whack on a facade of false glee at kangaroo selfies and $12 pints. I feel also that the exchange office is in some way complicit in this to get high numbers of incoming students. UWA students are lucky to benefit from such a broad exchange program and I mean no offence when I say the benefits they obtain by going to say, Berlin are far greater than that of a Berliner coming here. Many exchangees I know found the Perth they were sold to vastly misrepresent the Perth they encountered.
Having tried so hard to make it work, four months in after depression and anxiety crept incipiently upon me, I pulled the plug, dropped out of most classes (passing 3 of 4 modules, just), got a job in a bar and began saving for future travels. I wish, as a friend of mine did, that I had left in the first few weeks. I hope by writing this, exchangees in similar positions can see that not everyone has the experience online prospectus videos promise, and that maybe a rogue Aussie may feel inclined to extend the hand of friendship to the exchange kid they see in class. Having said all this, pleasant memories do float back to me of beers by the beach, roadtrips north and south, learning that life will never be a fairy tale and how to fend for myself. My world was widened, my views challenged, and I spent the remainder of my year travelling through Asia, doing odds and ends of work and learning Spanish. So thanks Perth, but not for the right reasons.
Words by Robert Law
If you are a foreign exchange student currently studying at UWA, Pelican would love to hear from you. Have your expectations of the program been matched by your experiences? We welcome positive and negative accounts – or those which are somewhere in between.