Back to SummaryMargot Hedlin - Student Advisor Profile
I didn’t really know what to expect when I landed in Brisbane, squinting in jet-lagged stupor at the Australian sun. I’d just come out of sophomore year with a strong interest in nature and a burning desire to “see the world” – whatever that meant. When I told my friends I’d be studying abroad in Australia, I got some mixed reactions; some thought I’d spend my whole time tanning on Australian beaches, others were confused as to why I’d want to spend so much time in a desert; one did everything he could to discourage me, because he was convinced I would get killed by one of Australia’s many endemic creatures.
So because many people don’t know what to expect out of Australia, I thought I’d start by describing it. Australia is one of those countries that questions your understanding of “normal”. It’s home to scorching, infertile deserts; lush tropical rainforests; endless miles of beaches, and the Great Barrier Reef. With trees that shed bark instead of leaves, animals that hop rather than walk, plants that can burst into flame with little instigation, and – yes – some of the most poisonous animals in the world, Australia is a country that keeps hitting you in the face with things you wouldn’t have thought possible (though hopefully it doesn’t hit you in the face with a blue-ringed octopus).
The Stanford program in Australia is geared towards challenging your expectations, towards pushing your understanding of the world. And because Australia has to be seen to be believed, most of our learning was out in the field – the classroom can’t do it justice. So over the course of three months, we traveled up and down the entire east coast of Australia to see what we could see.
I learned about the forests while hiking through them, craning my neck to see the far-off forest canopy. We learned about the mangroves by running transects, and learned the species by identifying them for surveys (Acanthus is the spiky one; Rhizophora is the one you climb around in to avoid Acanthus). We learned about coral reef ecosystems while snorkeling, floating after fish and looking for rays. I learned about phytoplankton bioluminescence by snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef at night, watching hundreds of fluorescent pinpricks as I kicked through the water.
I learned about environmental management from a professor who made sure we didn’t just think about science the whole time we were in Australia. We learned a tremendous amount about the thought that goes into development and human exploitation of resources. We explored alternative viewpoints by touring a mine, visiting a caravan park, and speaking to Aboriginal representatives. I learned Australian history while in Sydney, where in our free time we explored the city and rode the ferry through Sydney Harbor. We spoke to Aboriginal Australians from many different backgrounds, and through their stories, came to understand the situation of Indigenous cultures around the world.
Through the whole experience, we traveled as a group of 48 students that, through group meals, countless core samples, projects, early mornings, late nights, and shared adventures, became incredibly close. Through the whole experience, we were accompanied by professors who were deeply in love with their country, and did everything they could to show us why. Throughout the quarter, it would periodically hit me that – wow – this is school.
So in short, there were a lot of things I didn’t expect when I landed in Brisbane. I didn’t expect to be study the mangroves while ankle-deep in mud. I didn’t realize that we’d be moving ten times in the space of 3 months. I didn’t expect to see a turtle lay her eggs and slowly shuffle back to the sea. I didn’t know I’d wake up at 5 in the morning to listen to the symphonic cacophony of bird calls as they awoke to form the dawn chorus. I didn’t expect to learn “Waltzing Matilda” around a campfire, laughing with friends and shooing away the bandicoots that stole our marshmallows. And I didn’t expect to feel the way I felt when I flew out of Brisbane, squinting out the window for my last glimpse of the Australian sun.