Empathy is at the core of human-centered design. This is a fact I knew to be true but did not necessarily understand the importance of prior to the Unbound Fiji program. For this Social Enterprise and Development experience our group chose to focus on gender, encompassing our personal knowledge of feminist movements and women’s rights.
Pre-reading prepared us for the patriarchal culture of Fiji with women having low decision-making power and significant disadvantage compared to men, however we quickly learnt that this would not always be the case. Experiencing their way of life first-hand, we were led to understand that what we saw as a negative result of patriarchal values, had created a culture that celebrated the skills and contributions of women to family life.
In staying in Waivaka and Namatakula we found that many women were more than comfortable in this position, and often enjoyed their caregiving role. Whilst there is action around gender roles in Fiji that advocate women’s rights and push for a voice and power, the forceful nature of such movements can give way for significant backlash, so we wanted to begin to look for solutions that would celebrate and empower these women’s strengths to build confidence and self-worth rather than focus on areas that were lacking. It is always important to challenge your perceptions and expectations!
I participated in the in-country language and culture course in Lausanne, Switzerland. This course consisted of three weeks of French language class from 9am-12pm, Monday to Friday, and was the focal point of our immersion into the everyday life of the unique French-Swiss culture in Lausanne.
On Arrival 27/1/19
Getting to Lausanne was not as easy as I expected it to be. Rowena and I had to wake up at 4am in order to get to flight on time, we then proceeded to miss out train by 30 seconds, lined up in the wrong line at the airport and on top of that I was feeling very unwell making the minor inconveniences seem major. When we finally arrived in Lausanne we were shocked to find that everything outside of the train station was closed but because we needed to get to our accommodation we didn’t end up buying any groceries. At the end of the day after finally finding some groceries our oven broke so we had to get someone into fix it, which was hard because my French was not good enough to communicate what was wrong however I was lucky to be with Rowena who really stepped up and handled the situation perfectly. I am writing this the next day looking out at a beautiful view of the Alps and I am feeling a lot calmer and a lot more hopeful about the rest of the trip here. Just because the first day isn’t what I expected it to be I’m glad I was able to navigate my way through it. I’m optimistic that I am going to have an amazing time in Switzerland.
Mid Course 5/2/19
I am officially half way through my time in Lausanne and I am loving my time here. Lausanne is definitely not what I expected it to be. I have been to many cities in Europe before and the feel in Lausanne is very different. It’s a lot quieter, more expensive and also cleaner than any other city I’ve been to before. I have found myself falling into a very nice routine here. I get up, go to class for three hours, go home, have lunch, do my homework, go for a run, eat dinner, then go out for drinks with friends. I’m somebody who loves routine so being able to feel comfortable enough in Lausanne to slip into a routine has been amazing. As for the course initially I was finding it extremely difficult. I was seriously behind the rest of my class in my ability to speak however I was ahead of most of the class with writing ability. However the more I attend class and the more I am forced to speak, I am finding the class a lot more enjoyable and can see some serious improvements. I am now able to confidently talk with locals in when attempting to buy or order food.
End of Course 15/2/19
looking back over the three weeks I spent in Switzerland, I am very grateful
for the skills it has taught me. For my professional career it has
significantly improved my French, which will make me a greater asset to
multi-national corporations and allow me to work with a more diverse range of
people with a diverse range of opinions. It has also shown me that I can live
and thrive in a different culture, which will allow me to live and work in more
countries, opening me up to many more job opportunities. In my personal life it
has taught me to be more tolerant of others who are speaking in their second
language, to be self-sufficient and to better understand the issue of racism
and the harmful role that communication plays in it. Overall I believe this
experience has really changed me and I am very glad that I was given this
This whole experience came about because my two best friends were going to be overseas in January – one on exchange in the Netherlands and the other on a short-term study trip in the Netherlands as well. I knew that if I were to stay at home I would have serious FOMO, but I knew that I needed to complete some credit over summer to stay on track for my degree. After a quick perusal of the BUILD website, I found the perfect solution – six weeks living in Brooklyn and interning in Manhattan.
I’ve always loved the idea of living in foreign places for extended periods of time. I believe that you immerse yourself more in the culture and have the opportunity to do things beyond the usual tourist checklist. However, if you were to live a whole lifetime in NYC I doubt you would be able to do and see everything. It really is the city that never sleeps.
Interning at the international charity CMMB really gave me a taste of what a career in the not-for-profit space would look like. Everyone at the office was extremely kind and helpful, always giving me new projects and teaching me new skills. My fellow interns were also from foreign countries; Hungary, Spain, Nepal, China and India. So I was really lucky to learn about more than just one culture! Also working on the infamous Wall St. was a pretty cool experience.
The food was also unbelievable. I spent a ridiculous amount of money going around the city and trying anything and everything. But I have no regrets! We were also lucky enough to be in NYC during Restaurant Week which meant we were able to dine at 21 Club, a famous restaurant frequented by celebrities and presidents alike! My favourite food hotspot would have to be Chinatown because most things were incredibly affordable whilst also being delicious. The place I visited most often? World’s Best Cookie Dough. A must do!
We also did a lot of random activities – ice skating in central park, watching a Knicks game, visiting museums, catching the Staten Island Ferry, going to the Top of the Rock, watching a Rangers game and even going to a NY Fashion Week After-party!
So if you’re considering interning in NYC, or even just travelling there – I highly recommend!!!
On the 29th of January 2019, I set off for 14-hour long journey to a place I was somewhat familiar with, others teased that it was my second home. I have travelled several times over my lifetime to the bustling capital of Japan known as Tokyo, but this time it was different.
What lured me to this trip in the first place was the opportunity to practice my three years of Japanese language study, which I have struggled continuously to use in conversation in my past travels. I had received an email advertising the Meiji University Language Program which gave the opportunity for me to study and practice the language while receiving credit points towards my Diploma of Languages.
Meiji University’s Japanese Language Program is a UTS BUILD Abroad endorsed course, which is a three-week intensive language course located within central Tokyo. There are four levels which you can apply for: introductory, beginners, pre-intermediate or intermediate. However, you are not guaranteed the level you have chosen because you will be allocated based on the result of the test given to you on the first day. (This is just a heads up for those who’d want to prepare and brush up a little on their language skills).
The classes are mostly taught in Japanese, but more complex concepts were explained in English. My first realisation in these classes was how lucky it was for English to be my first language. The course consisted of people from all around the world, many from countries where English was not the primary language. I watched as some of my classmates struggled to grasp the concept in both Japanese and English, but after persistent efforts, they had managed to gain an understanding in the end. I grew to admire them and noticed how they overcame these communication issues with other forms of communication.
The program not only provides language classes but also offered an opportunity to experience its culture in another perspective. For this session, we had a chance to participate in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony and to wear a traditional Japanese Kimono. Although I had checked off most of the ‘What to do when you’re in Tokyo’ checklist in my previous trips, this was my very first time experiencing these things.
The Japanese tea ceremony was an informative and reflective experience. Although the ceremony was not performed under traditional circumstances, the demonstration was inspiring, and the instructors had provided thorough explanations for each step and the meaning behind it. In the end, everyone was welcome to try their hand at performing the ceremony within small groups. All I can say is that I did not have the arm strength for it, but it was an enjoyable experience.
The following week was the Kimono wearing class, and with knowledge of the traditional wear, I was dreading it a little knowing it’ll be the most uncomfortable thing I would have to wear. On the day we had our language class as usual, and after we were split into changing rooms where a trained staff helped you put on the kimono of your choice (It was first come, first serve basis). Overall it took about 20 minutes to get the garment on and was about 3 hours of restricted movement (and lungs) to go out and enjoy being dolled up. On this day, it was my very first experience wearing such a beautiful piece of clothing and also the day I decided that I would never wear such a thing again.
Finally, The last thing on this trip which I will never forget is the relationship I had built with my host family. This program offered three options in regards to accommodations, and in order to maximise my time in practising my Japanese skills; I had chosen the homestay option over the hotel option provided by the university. They were a lovely family, who welcomed me to their home and gave me a lot of good memories and experience.
So I guess this isn’t a very good conclusion to this blog, but I would like to show how grateful I am to the host family who took me in for those three weeks (Even though they would probably never see this). To the host mother, who made me delicious meals for breakfast and dinner. Who had helped me practice my Japanese while showing me a different perspective of Japan. Thank you for patiently listening to me and helping me ease into this lifestyle. To the host father who I didn’t get many chances to interact with, thank you for driving us on the weekends and all the small conversations you tried to keep up in English. And to the kids who were extremely loud and full of energy, thank you for keeping my days positive with your smiles and high energy every day. If you ever have the chance to undergo a homestay option, I highly recommend it was one of the most memorable experiences in this trip.
This wasn’t my first trip to Tokyo, Japan and it isn’t going to be my last but at those moments, it’s the experience that make it something special to remember (Okay that was cheesy and it’s way past my bed time but I finally got this done).
As I look back
on the summer of 2018, the corners of my mouth light up, turning them into a
bright smile, reflecting back on the bittersweet memories I made during my time
at summer school over at Cambodia. It
was only through the New Columbo Plan and Science Without Borders with the
admirable Dr Alison Ung supervising the entirety of this journey that this
experience was brought to reality.
During my trip, I realised a few things about my sheltered and spoilt lifestyle going into a differently cultured country without the guidance of my parents. From my experience living in Australia, people like to go and hang out with friends, or even buy take out after finishing work. This however wasn’t the norm in Cambodia. When asking about the night culture to my local friends they explained to me that instead of partying or going out for dinner, Khmer people will go home after school or work and spend time with their families. Coming from an Asian family, I too understood these values as I also have dinner with my family every night but never realised it when living in the comforts of my social habits until viewing this perspective from a foreigner’s point of view. The effort from the local students touched me deeply as I realised their sacrifices to make my night a happy memory when they took me out for dinner.
there were differences between Western and Eastern cultures, there was also
collaboration. An important example of
this intriguing collaboration was the combination of Western and Eastern
medicine Khmer people use to treat their patients. For a part of our program, we spent a small
duration of our trip at the University of Health and Sciences of Cambodia. During my time here, I learnt about the
history of Cambodia and how it has affected their future.
One of the major past events of this country was being colonised by the French. As a result, some part of the French culture has carried on to the current generations of Cambodian culture, with their teachings of medicine and science not being an exception. Additionally, Cambodians have also integrated traditional Asian medicine into their treatments with the use of herbal plants. In doing so, the patient receives treatments from the best of both worlds. If Western medicine doesn’t help, there is always an alternative with traditional medicine. As a pre-medicine student, I believe this information is also very valuable as when I become a doctor, I can think of alternatives to other medications (e.g. for kidney or liver failure, I can recommend herbs instead of pills).
During my studies here, what intrigued me was the structure of tertiary education in Cambodia. One thing I realised was unlike my experiences at UTS, Buddhism was taught in the curriculum of Pannasastra Univerisity of Cambodia (PUC), the institution I studied in Cambodia. Currently, it is estimated that up until 2050, approximately 96.9% of the population of Cambodia will be practicing Buddhism (Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, 2019).
A huge constituent of the population of Khmer people practice Buddhism as a way of life. Because of this, in regards to contemporary Cambodian culture and social aspects, its teachings have slowly impacted and improved most Cambodian lifestyle with education not being an exception.
During my time here, the dean of PUC explained the reasons to me why he decided to include Buddhism into the curriculum. Teaching me about the genocides and hardships that his beloved country has faced, he told me that the only way he believed that Cambodia can grow is to forgive and move forward. He said that in order to do this, people have to have faith in something and to have a clear mind, allowing them to be grateful and appreciative for what they currently have. Many students in Cambodia will have families that have the effects of war and poverty inflicted upon them, but through PUC, these wounds can be remedied.
One method which the dean of PUC decided to combat these complications was to grant scholarships for students to study at PUC. This was done by conducting interviews with the students and their families to gauge the amount a grant was to be given. Additionally, the Dean has admitted that PUC has students from rich, corrupted families and he charges them more as the demand to study in a prestigious university in Cambodia is still high. As a result of the additional fees, he distributes the money to the poor allowing them to break the cycle of poverty by giving them the chance to have a tertiary education.
Additionally, something that really resonated for me was the main reason why the Dean wanted to have religion in conjunction with their studies. He believes that by practicing Buddhism while studying at a tertiary level will allow the students to become more wise and kind-hearted people, designing them to be valuable members of society that have the ability to make ethical decisions in regards to any field they choose to have a career in.
My initial thought to this ideology was very impressed. My mum comes from Indonesia where she finished her bachelor’s degree. When I came to Cambodia, the environment was very similar, but it made me feel a bit uneasy due to different social practices as well as the language barrier. From what she told me, this practice is very unique, yet it is something I have come to admire finding respect towards the dean and his reasoning.
In speaking with my classmates, I am aware that we came from different belief systems so learning about the practice of religion as part of our degree was surprising for some. For myself, I truly realised how lucky I was, to be able to practice a religion that wasn’t imposed on me and wasn’t a critical factor for me to be able to graduate. However, back in Australia, I feel that my experiences at UTS only teach us what we have to know about our degree but nothing on ethics. I feel that if a practice like this comes into play, we can all become better individuals/graduates.
As my trip concluded, I was left with thoughts on how has this trip made me a better individual. In general, I am very self-reflecting person who always judges myself critically. Whether it’s in academics or in my job, I always use my mistakes and opportunities to better myself.
With my experiences of Buddhism during my trip, I have tried to incorporate their beliefs into mine. As different countries have different interpretations of Buddhism, Cambodians to have their own way of practicing. Cambodians practice a form of Buddhism called Theravada, one of the most ancient forms of Buddhism (Findingdulcinea.com, 2019). On one of our final days at PUC, the dean gave us lecture on the practice of Theravada Buddhism in Cambodia, allowing an immersive and memorable lesson to be imprinted on us.
The main points of Theravada Buddhism are to not harm anyone, sell poisons/weapons and to not harm animals. Although Cambodians eat meat, they have a slight derivation to the final rule. It is justifiable to eat meat if they cannot see or hear the animal being killed (Pheng, 2018).
The lessons that Dr Pheng, the dean of PUC has taught me will leave a mental imprint on me throughout my life. A few practices that I have tried to incorporate these teachings into my life is to appreciate living creatures in general. I have tried to not kill anymore insects but instead to let them go in a way to show my new appreciation of life as well as to become a more patient and caring individual.
This program has ultimately allowed me to obtain new perspectives as well as develop a deeper appreciation for culture and life. I can only hope these experiences will stay with me and allow me to become an empathetic doctor one day which I believe is an important trait a medical practitioner should possess.
Landing back in Sydney was a bittersweet moment. On the one hand, I was overjoyed to be coming home and on the other, I was sad to have left my new friends. One thing I can say about this trip was that it has certainly exceeded my expectations. I miss the camaraderie that I have established with the local students and I still keep in touch with them, messaging them on Facebook now and again to catch up. My favorite part of this trip was establishing connections and friendships globally with other students which I hope will be life long relationships. If I had the chance to do it all again, even if it meant going through my challenges for a second time, I will accept without even a second thought. I recommend to all students to have an international experience as it will be a fresh of breath air compared to the everyday life of going into uni as it is an experience to be studying overseas.
I’m struggling to find the words to adequately describe the time I spent in India – but can say with certainty it was nothing short of incredible. From learning about and exploring various systems present throughout rural India, such as the education and healthcare system, to spending time within the homes of families living in the village, each day on immersion presented us with a multitude of new and unique experiences.
Throughout the program, we continually learnt about and were exposed to the powerful and transformative notion of empathy, and furthermore the role it plays in building and fostering relationships based upon a shared understanding. Over the course of three weeks living within the rural Maharashtrian village of Sonoshi, with the concept of empathy to guide us, we spent a significant amount of time out amongst the village, spending time with individuals and families. I was, and still am, completely bewildered by the strength and intensity of the connections that could be made in such a short amount of time.
Reflecting back, I acknowledge that even the brief interactions I shared with certain individuals whilst on immersion have had a lasting impact on me, most notably the attitudes and values imparted upon us by a select few healthcare workers we had the privilege to meet. Embarking on the program as part of a group of nursing students, the morals and beliefs of these healthcare professionals heavily resonated with me.
An experience throughout my immersion that I found to be particularly impactful occurred whilst on a day trip touring local healthcare facilities. We had the opportunity to meet and speak with Pamela, the sole nurse working at a local village hospital. The unwavering dedication she displayed towards her role and her passion for health education shone through in all that she spoke about – only made stronger by the fact that she lives permanently at the centre, so that she can provide care to anyone presenting to the facility at any hour of the day or night. If sacrificing sleep wasnt enough, Pamela also revealed that in residing permanently at the centre, she faces the difficult situation of living away from her family – sacrificing being with her loved ones in the name of caring for others.
This intense drive and devotion for providing care was echoed within the morals of a doctor we met whilst visiting a larger facility in nearby Ghoti. A man whom, despite working incredibly long hours, and being limited by time, staffing, and resources, stressed to us the importance of always showing kindness to your patients, and placing them at the centre of everything you do. It was so humbling and inspiring to be reminded of these values within an environment that presented a multitude of workplace stressors, and is something I will strive to continually reflect upon during my future career as a nurse.
A reflection of my time in India wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the intense and meaningful impact the people of Sonoshi had on me throughout my time in the village. We discovered very quickly that the people that inhabit this temporary home of ours radiate warmth and kindness in every aspect of their lives. Whilst walking around the village, we were met with warm smiles and invitations for chai, instantly erasing any apprehensions I held about our presence in the village. The hospitality and openness exuded by the villagers of Sonoshi was simply unfaltering, a fact that became even more evident after being given the opportunity to split up into pairs and spend more quality time with certain families.
Through spending significant time with certain people throughout the village, we were granted a raw insight into their daily lives. It became clear that, despite obvious cultural differences and an ever-present language barrier, empathy plays such a central role in creating strong connections, particularly ones that aren’t built solely upon verbal communication.
Through learning about and exploring other methods of communication for empathy, and furthermore employing these within our interactions throughout the village, I was able to overcome the preoccupation I previously held about relying purely on verbal communication to build a connection. I found that the moments of shared silence, where I could feel comfortable to just sit and be in someone’s presence, or whilst helping them to sort rice or pick methi leaves, to be of equal importance to the moments where in which a translator was present to assist us in sharing aspects of our life to each other.
Stemming from these interactions and connections, it was incredible to think that people felt comfortable enough around us to share deep, personal aspects of their lives. It was in these moments that the inherent strength and resilience that was present all around us in Sonoshi truly shone bright. Despite the difficult situations many were faced with, there was a unanimous attitude to maintain a positive outlook on life, and do all in your power to love and support those around you.
Living within a tribal community allowed us to witness first-hand the plethora of cultural and religious beliefs surrounding tribal identity, and most notably, the immense connection the villagers of Sonoshi have with nature and the land around them. Through spending time with families in the village, we were provided with the opportunity to further understand and delve into the relationship between tribal values and people’s perceptions of not only their own health, but also healthcare in general.
I was particularly fascinated by the practice of ayurvedic medicine within the village, and was grateful for the opportunity to visit Ramdas Kaka, a villager living in Sonoshi who practices in ayurvedic remedies. We learnt about the sacred beliefs surrounding ayurvedic medicine, and the immense importance knowledge of the remedies holds. Kaka explained to us that he provides these remedies free of charge to anyone seeking it, once again enforcing the rich sense of community and support ingrained within tribal villages.
I learnt and experienced so much throughout my time in India – and it is an experience I will cherish for years to come. The people I met, and the insights into their lives that they shared with us is something I will always be grateful for. To the Drishtee Immersion team who guided us through this experience – I thank you endlessly. Your unwavering support and dedication to uncovering perspectives and fostering real understanding within the village inspired me greatly, and made this experience one I am privileged to have been a part of.
Over summer we sent 595 students on short term experiences around the world.
We ran a photo competition for these students to showcase how these opportunities impacted their summer break.
The winner of this competition has been voted by UTS International and has won a Hero5 Black Edition GoPro.
Below are some of our favourite entries, followed by our top 6 photos!
Our Runners Up
6. Georgina Scott – United States
“Extremely thankful for the opportunity to live and work in NYC. It’s truly incredible what you can accomplish when you step outside of your comfort zone. Feeling inspired to continue seeing the world, pushing my limits and meeting new people”
5. Annemarie Gad – Indonesia
“Ambon has shed light on creating change; it was a unique and practical experience making me feel like ‘I could actually make a difference’. I have learnt that it is within these complex problems that I can find a hidden gem which could be amplified to allow for a shift in a positive direction. I’m inspired to continue to find these hidden gems (like this beautiful spot found on the island)”
4. Chelsea Hetherington – Fiji
“My @utsbuild experience in Fiji will live in my memory forever, just like this sunset… colourful, calming, and truly magical”
3. Vivian Cheung – Shanghai
“The UTS BUILD Program has shaped who I am now in many different ways. By putting myself outside of my comfort zone, not only has it taught me to be patient and resilient, it has also changed my view on the world. Growing up as an Asian Australian, going to Shanghai has allowed me to delve deeper into the Chinese culture and gain a proper understanding of my heritage. This experience has opened my eyes to a world of endless opportunities, and has made me want to further appreciate the beauty of other cultures. It has helped me grow as a person, by showing me that I can be brave enough to take a chance on the world. I too can have the power to achieve great things, be bold, fearless and strive to become a global leader.”
2. Jackson Elliott – Indonesia
“Would never in my wildest dreams expected to have spent 2 weeks of my summer on the small island of Ambon, Indonesia (to be honest I didn’t even know the place existed!) I went in unsure of what to expect, and man, it was beyond what I could have dreamed. Beautiful people, stunning landscapes, a gorgeous culture, and not to mention that this was completing one of my electives! I discovered how design can act as a universal language, good design can be translated to anyone. This trip and the design work I did has inspired me to look further into using my practice to make changes worldwide. Obviously this couldn’t have been achieved without @utsbuild and @newcolomboplan , so a massive thanks to them for allowing me to participate in handsdown the best thing I’ve done across 2 years of University. Everyday on that beautiful island was truely inspiring, and helped me understand how damn lucky we have it in Australia!”
And our winner is….
Diana-Ngoc Vo – Hong Kong
“After deciding not to study a semester abroad, this trip to Hong Kong was my ‘mini exchange’ that I would forever cherish. It was a step out of my comfort zone but one I have immensely grown in as a designer. A mini advice for those who are thinking of going and even for those who’s never considered it. Take that leap of faith! Jump into the unknown and explore this beautiful world, because it has so much to offer. Creativity is all around you! Be bold.”
Congratulations to Diana and all of our featured BUILD Abroaders. We hope that you have all enjoyed your summer experiences!
The Conflict Islands are a group of 20+ uninhabited islands, located in the middle of the Coral Sea in Alotau, Papua New Guinea. The coral atoll is home to a rich, biodiverse ecosystem of marine life, frequented by two particular species of sea turtles; the green and hawksbill turtle.
During the summer, I was given the opportunity through UTS and BUILD Abroad, to join 8 other volunteers, and a team of extremely motivated and inspirational staff, to take part in the CICI Turtle Tagging Internship. This program revolves around providing data to help develop an understanding of the turtle populations residing and nesting at the Conflict Islands.
CICI have successfully developed an internship that aims to protect and promote the populations of turtles that visit the islands during nesting season. As part of the program, we would partake in night patrols of the main islands, searching for females nesting to relocate her eggs back to the main island Panasesa to be buried in safely guarded turtle hatcheries. From there, all the healthy and able hatchlings would be released into the ocean to start their life journey, whilst those that looked like they needed a little extra love and attention would become residents in the islands turtle nursery, until they looked strong enough for release.
Not only are the turtles of the Conflicts subject to some of today’s environmental pressures, including climate change and plastic pollution, they are also extremely vulnerable to poaching by PNG locals, for food and egg harvesting, as well as use of their stunning shells for tourism trade. CICI’s work with the local communities in trying to raise awareness of these issues and the variety of threats facing their turtle populations is commendable.
The tagging of the turtles also creates a baseline dataset of the juveniles, which can be used for future study into the return of nesting females. When the tags are applied, their numbers are recorded and entered into a global monitoring database, along with other information about the individual, including carapace size, any existing tags from other studies, or any obvious injuries. The tags also carry the PO Box of the main island, which is useful information for travelling turtles who have been tracked using satellite tags, swimming all the way to Australia and other neighbouring countries.
My time at the Conflict Islands was incredible, inspiring, and eye-opening. It has firmly and unquestionably confirmed my passion for environmental conservation, and in particular, the importance of marine preservation. I’m also so grateful for being able to visit such a beautiful place, and have the opportunity to dive, and be submerged in the vibrant sea life that makes up the Conflicts. The amazing efforts of the CICI staff and my fellow volunteers made my experience unforgettable.
Vamos a la playa!!! When I found out I would be going to San Sebastián I immediately thought of the cheesy 2000s song of that name. Googling the city came up with countless images of its pristine sandy beach stretching more than 3 kilometres. It looked so stunning I almost didn’t care that we were going in the middle of winter.
Vamos a la playa were the only 4 words of Spanish I knew and they turned out to be useless once I arrived and realised that San Sebastián is part of Basque Country. They speak a completely different language from Spanish and the locals are proud of it!
Apart from its beach, I heard that it was a city famous for its culture, nightlife and cuisine and boy did it deliver.
We walked the famous beach every day to get from our apartment to the city centre.
Whilst it was stunning, the 2.5 km of wind and rain pulling you back as you’re trying to walk home at 5 am in the morning from the club was not so great. Despite the title of this blog, only one of us seven students braved the cold conditions for a winter swim. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Visiting during off peak season meant we had a chance to properly experience the city like locals and appreciate its charm free from the swathes of tourists that descend in summer.
We attended TECNUN University de Navarra for a 2 week intensive program about machine learning and data analytics facilitated through Python. The first week we had classes at the university and the second week we were taken on 4 company visits (CAF, Orbea, IKOR & Danobat) where we could see how these technologies were used in industries. These visits were definitely my favourite parts and it was fascinating and exciting to understand how these processes were undertaken. Throughout these 2 weeks, the university also organised a bunch of different cultural activities for us. Whether it was visiting Saint Jean de Luc, a mere 30 minute drive to travel into the south of France, or visiting a cidery where you could catch your cider from barrels, to visiting the Guggenheim, there was never a dull moment. Except for Sundays. A note to future students: on Sunday the majority of places except pinchos bars and bakeries are closed, even grocery stores.
Also a note to future students undertaking this course in winter: bring gum boots. It rained for a large section of our stay but the few days where the sun shone out were extra special. Although the beach that spans the coast is definitely the statement of the city, the winding side streets, classic architecture and amazing lookout also add to its vast beauty. A definite highlight was climbing to the top of Monte Urgull, the hill that towers over the city, and visiting the 12m statue of Jesus on the top known as the Castillo de la Mota.
The most memorable part of the trip was being lucky enough to witness the city’s annual drumming festival that happened to fall in the middle of our stay. It was 24 hours of drumming starting at midnight on Saturday where everyone gathers in the city plaza to watch an endless parade of people dressed in cook and soldier uniforms, young and old, drumming along with a marching band around the city. This festival is so significant that it is declared a public holiday and it was probably the coolest thing I experienced on the trip.
I had a great experience during the program and can’t recommend it enough. I will leave you with the only words I managed to learn in Basque:
I landed back in Sydney on Friday night, headed to work on Sunday and was back at uni on Monday. Not even a week home after 6 weeks abroad and it’s as if I never left. Travelling has a weird way of interrupting your perception of time. It feels like forever and simultaneously is over in the blink of an eye. Towards the end of January, I headed to Spain for the BUILD abroad Intensive Spanish Language Course at the University of Granada. It was an experience where I not only improved my Spanish skills but met so many incredible people and explored so many beautiful places.
Before the course
Before heading to Granada, I spent a few days in Barcelona. In the infamous ‘Pickpocketing Capital of the World’, it was safe to say I had concerns about my belongings and safety as a solo-traveller. To my surprise though, I felt calm and safe in this tourist haven. My preconceptions were proved wrong and whilst I was wary of people, I also felt adequately prepared to face anything. Barcelona is an impressive city, filled with thousands of years of history. I could understand the romance and beauty that the city has to offer and the tourist traps that deter others. Being in a new city alone was liberating but also lonely at times. Putting myself out of my comfort zone and making new friends certainly made my time in Barcelona more memorable.
Studying in Granada
Granada is a city that is distinctly different from Barcelona. On a base level, it is significantly smaller geographically and has a more local feel. The city is known for its Arab influence, exemplar in the main tourist site, La Alhambra. It’s a place that I quickly fell in love with. Surrounded by the Sierra Nevada and not far from the coast, with its antique architecture and free tapas, there’s almost nothing not to like. I loved the spontaneity of my life there. During the week, we had classes in the morning and the afternoons were free to explore the city . On the weekends we would venture out to nearby cities. I was able to going skiing on the Sierra Nevada mountains, layout on the beach at Nerja on the Costa Del Sol and explore the history filled streets of Sevilla.
Adjusting to the Spanish schedule, living with new people, going to a new school, speaking predominantly Spanish; it was all so different to my life in Australia in a good way. I loved being pushed out of my comfort zone, making new friends and discovering all the things that were different about our lives. Whilst speaking Spanish was definitely daunting and embarrassing at times, I can’t express enough how beneficial it has been to learning the language. I feel much more confident speaking now and it comes more naturally to me than before. The program also helped me to discover what my strengths were in learning a language versus others. Having a very small class meant that we were able to utilise each others strengths in speaking, grammar and listening. Our teachers could not speak much english and we had people from China, the USA and Sweden in our class, so we often had to be creative and find other ways to explain difficult concepts to our teacher and other classmates. Classes were also less structured than Spanish classes in Australia. Often someone would ask a question and then our teachers would tell us a long anecdotal story and start teaching us about something completely off topic. Sometimes this was a little disruptive but it also meant that we learnt about key cultural insights to Spanish life or colloquial sayings and so on. It was a little difficult to meet locals at first but once we did, it made our time in Granada so much more authentic.
After the course
After a beautiful but busy month in Granada, it was time to leave. I headed to Madrid before heading home. Madrid surprised me as I did not expect it to be such a cultural, artistic and trendy city. Not only does it have the classic Spanish, historic tourist spots and European architecture but it is filled with hipster haunts like the areas of Malasaña and Lavapiés. If you like vintage shopping, modern art galleries and kitschy trinkets, it’s the perfect city to visit. It honestly surprised me as I did not expect Madrid to have this effortless and cool energy. Again distinctly different from everywhere else I’d visited before, it was awesome to see another side of Spain before heading home.
Now that I’ve returned, I am straight back into my life as it was before and in some ways it’s like I never left. Despite that, I am so satisfied with my decision to take this course and spend a month on my own overseas. I developed my Spanish skills and I feel more prepared for my ICS next year in Argentina. I have made new lifelong friends from all around the world. I got a chance to live in a different country and learn about cultural differences that I did not expect to face. It may be a cliché but it was a truly unforgettable experience and I would do it again in a heartbeat!