I remember how excited I was when I received my letter of offer from an Australian university. Getting to study overseas has always been my dream and, at that moment, I imagined the opportunities that would finally be available to me – like meeting new friends, living on my own, and learning to cook for myself.
While I couldn’t wait to do all those things, the more I thought about it, the more frightened I became at the idea of managing all that while also trying to keep up with studying.
Many questions started to pop into my head. Which courses should I be taking? How do I get around the university campus and the city centre? Who do I speak to if I need help? Where can I find cheap or discounted items?
Throughout my four years in Australia, I have reflected on how I would do things differently or what advice I would give to others in order to fully appreciate this thrilling and worthwhile experience as an international student.
What is it really like being an international student?
Living abroad can be a very challenging experience. You are separated from your friends and family and must adapt to new ways of doing things to fit in.
Sometimes you may feel that you have lost your cultural identity.
Every international student will have a different experience living and studying in Australia and what one student finds challenging might be a breeze for another. Some of the most common everyday struggles you are likely to encounter when studying overseas include the following …
Experiencing culture shock
Culture shock is definitely what most, if not all, international students will encounter. This refers to the feeling of unfamiliarity with a new culture and social norms when living far from home.
There is no correct timeframe when it comes to making a cultural adjustment – it all depends on your ability to adapt to a new social, academic and cultural context.
I really didn’t expect culture shock to affect me so early but noticed some indications that I was experiencing it including withdrawing from social activities, experiencing a lack of motivation, as well as stress and loneliness.
I’ve been through all four stages of culture shock. Sometimes it can be very frustrating when you think that you have successfully beaten it and then, when you least expect, it reappears for some time. I learned to make peace with it by thinking of it as a normal phenomenon and something that I can talk with other people about.
Fitting in and settling down
Part of culture shock is feeling like you don’t fit into your new environment.
At first, you might find yourself feigning interest in activities that locals enjoy.
During my first few weeks after moving into university accommodation, my roommate invited me to a party. I remember trying to have fun but realised that it was not the kind of thing I enjoyed. I was only doing it because I wanted to fit in and make some new friends. I decided that if I was feeling uncomfortable, I didn’t have to continue doing it.
It was a decision that helped me discover that I much prefer a casual lunch with good food and good company. Pretty soon I found some friends who enjoy the same thing, and Friday lunches soon became a tradition! Australia’s coffee culture has become almost obsessive so getting yourself regularly caffeinated is another positive step you can take to fit in.
Once you find an activity that you are comfortable with, you will begin to settle.
Dealing with homesickness
Even if you manage to quickly settle down into a new city and a new routine, homesickness can start to creep in.
What I have learned is that missing your home, the people, and the culture, is okay and absolutely normal.
When it comes to feeling homesick, you are not alone. Even domestic students who come from interstate also experience homesickness. It’s important to stay connected with your loved ones and your heritage, while also looking for opportunities to experience new things and explore new places.
My ability to cope with all these challenges comes down to acceptance. I accepted that I am away from my family and old friends. I accepted that I now live in a new city. I accepted that things are different from home.
Try to cultivate an open mind and take some risks.
To help ease your transition into a new Australian city, and one that you will hopefully come to regard as your second home, I have collated some of my essential survival tips derived from personal experiences.
1. Australian culture
While you may have strong English language skills, something you may not have accounted for is Australian slang. Try to familiarise yourself with a few common expressions.
Reading more about your host country gives you a better understanding of how it operates. It can also be a topic of conversation for that helps you integrate more easily.
Take advantage of your city – whether you are based in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane, Adelaide or Perth – by visiting local attractions. If you’re based in Canberra, a trip to the War Memorial, Parliament House and the National Gallery can help you learn more about Australia’s history and culture.
Make sure you know in advance what courses you should be taking. You can do this by referring to the semester study plan spreadsheet available from your college. Stick to that plan and contact your college Dean if you are having trouble selecting courses.
International students are required to enrol full-time and complete a minimum of 24 units per semester (4 courses per semester, each course with a value of 6 units).
Student central or student administration services are available to help you manage your study programs. There are also student-run organisations or associations that you can contact with further enquiries.
For textbooks and materials, the Co-op Bookshop is the place to go. It is the largest retailer in Australia and located right on campus at each university. Textbook exchange Facebook groups are a popular way to buy pre-used books. StudentVIP is also a great website to find cheap textbooks and tutors.
One way to get the most out of your university life is by getting a part-time job. It’s a great way to build your network and to develop the kind of practical skills and experiences that future employers look for in a potential candidate.
A student visa generally allows international students to work up to 40 hours per fortnight during a university semester and unlimited hours during a holiday break.
To avoid the possibility of being exploited by an unethical employer, make sure you are aware of your basic workplace rights, such as minimum wage and basic employee protections.
Put your best efforts into your job and aim to impress your supervisors and managers because when it comes to finishing up your studies, you can ask them to be a referee for you. It’s also a great way to build relationships that may lead to future opportunities.
4. Housing and accommodation
The prospect of moving to an entirely new country can be terrifying thought, so choosing accommodation that best suits you and your personality is critical to ensuring that you have an enjoyable experience. For personal safety reasons and easy access to study facilities, I chose to stay in a private apartment on campus.
Walking to a lecture or a tutorial also gives me an excuse to get some exercise.
If you are not confident cooking for yourself, you might prefer staying at a residential college which has a variety of meal options available. If you are looking for a cheaper alternative, an off-campus share house is also an option. Try searching Flatmates for shared accommodation options. Local Facebook groups in your city are also a great way to find a vacant room with like-minded students.
5. Budgeting and finance
Living on your own for the first time means that you are responsible for managing your budget.
Open a bank account by applying online or by visiting a local branch. Most Australian banks have a mobile app or online banking options where you can easily track your spending.
I tend to personalise my sub-accounts by labelling them according to my monthly expenditure. For example, ‘food, ‘renting’, ‘tuition fees’. Living Expenses Calculators can also help you identify the average amount you may need to allocate in each account.
If you enjoy online shopping, you will love UNiDAYS which offers a range of discounts from major brands, exclusive only to students.
6. Getting around
If you’re having trouble finding your lecture rooms or where to buy food, the free mobile app Lost On Campus has got it all. It consists of maps and images of lecture halls, nearest toilets and even vending machines.
For bigger adventures, Google Maps is your new best friend. The app now includes public transportation guides that can help you decide which bus or train you should take to get to a specific destination as well as which route is the fastest.
The Australian Government has compiled public transport information for each state and territory if you are eager to learn more about the best way of getting around.
If you prefer to avoid public transportation, riding a bicycle is ideal for most students to get around campus and the city. They are affordable, excellent for your health and good for the environment.
Like domestic students, being an international student comes with its own set of benefits and challenges. Keep in mind that there are a number of resources out there to help you settle down in a new place, so take advantage of them.
To those who have just started their degree in Australia – good luck! You have a fantastic and exciting journey ahead of you. To those who are half way through or almost finished their studies – keep going! The end is near and graduation day will come around faster than you imagine!
Links and resources
- Comprehensive international student guides are available through Insider Guides here.
- Each Australian university generally has its own international student guide/handbook either in print or online. Look them up on your university website.
- The Australian Government also has further useful information relating to visas, changing your courses, and scholarships.