Danielle Zabielski is a Communications student at Saint Joseph’s University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at the University of Melbourne in Australia in 2016. She is an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-To-Study Program.
Before I left home to study abroad in Melbourne, my friends who had previously studied in other countries told me about how their experiences—particularly those outside the classroom—changed them. Going abroad altered their perspectives, boosted their self-esteem, and helped them unearth deeper parts of themselves. “You’ll be a brand new you when you come home,” one said. “Well, not brand new, because you’re still you. More like you 2.0.”
At first, I didn’t see how. What changes could I possibly experience during five months in Australia that I couldn’t undergo at home?
Fast-forward to the present. I’m currently in my room at Whitley College, a residential college affiliated with the University of Melbourne. The me sitting here, typing this piece, is not the same person who applied to study abroad back in September of last year. She’s not the same girl who got on the plane in New York this past July.
This Danielle is more comfortable with a lot of things, like traveling. She’s more comfortable with being alone. She’s (becoming) more comfortable in crowds. Mainly, though, she’s more comfortable with being herself—with all aspects of her identity.
Unsure of What to Expect
Let’s just get this out in the open before we go any further: My sexual orientation is not completely straight. Instead, I fall closer to the bisexual part of the spectrum—although I’m honestly not quite sure if that’s even the right term for what I am. My sexuality has never been something I’ve focused on or discussed too much. Of course I’ll talk about it openly if someone asks, but I’m usually not the first to bring it up. I just feel how I feel and usually leave it at that.
The me sitting here, typing this piece, is not the same person who applied to study abroad back in September of last year.
For some reason I assumed that I’d have to actively hide this part of myself while studying in Australia. On campus at my home university, I always feel free to express myself however I please, knowing I’ll be supported by my friends and peers. But people in Melbourne, I thought, might be less accepting. To make matters more complicated, news of an Australian plebiscite (which is essentially a nationwide opinion poll) concerning same-sex marriage had been circulating in the weeks prior to my departure date. Needless to say, I wasn’t too sure what I was going to find when I arrived.
What I found was an incredibly accepting and uplifting community of diverse individuals. This community is Whitley College.
Constant Support at College
When you study at the University of Melbourne through IFSA-Butler, you can either choose to live in apartment-style housing or apply to stay at one of three residential colleges. Out of the college options I was given, I applied to Whitley. Truthfully, the main reason I decided on Whitley was because I’d be guaranteed my own bedroom. I wasn’t really thinking about the community at all.
One thing is constantly clear: you are welcome at Whitley.
But now I can’t imagine my experience in Australia without this outstanding group of people. They hail from all over the globe—Australia, New Zealand, India, Malaysia, Mexico, and Canada, to name a few—and have unique viewpoints to match. Yet one thing is constantly clear: you are welcome at Whitley. No matter what religion you practice, what political views you hold, or who you love, you’re embraced and respected. And even better than that, you’re encouraged to verbalize those beliefs and feelings. Here, your uniqueness is considered an asset instead of a flaw.
In particular, seeing my LGBTQ+ friends express their sexuality with such self-confidence has influenced me to do the same. Even if I don’t have a precise label for my sexuality yet (which is totally okay, by the way!) I’m much more confident in my identity than I was three short months ago. Both the Whitley community and the inhabitants of Melbourne have taught me—either explicitly or by example—to be true to myself.
It’s safe to say that I’ve gained as much knowledge and inspiration from Australia’s people as I have from my university lectures. In Melbourne, rather than hide my identity, I’ve been able to explore it. And although that’s not something that goes on my transcript, it’ll stay with me long after I return to the States.