Laney Schwantes in Australia

Streams of yellow light escape through stiff curtains as the sun rises over the leaf-littered rugby field outside the window, covered in frost for a few minutes before melting away. Uniform shoes clap against the pavement as students hurriedly rush to select the largest piece of cake at morning tea before getting back in line for seconds. Melted cheese and crumbs from lunchtime toasties litter the dining hall tables before being wiped away at the ringing of the bell. Wiping suffocating dust off riding pants after a quick ride and grooming the horses before hurrying to dinner at dusk. A mix of rap and early 2000s pop music vibrate off the shower walls, still humid with remnants of steam from the few warm showers earlier in the night. Silence in a boarding house of girls eagerly anticipating bed checks before running down the dark hallways into rooms to play cards late at night.

I’m approaching my final days here at New England Girls School (NEGS) in New South Wales, Australia. Most people think Australia is either just another version of America or a barren desert crawling with tarantulas, crocodiles and kangaroos. Based on my experience here, neither of these impressions are true–although I did see a moth larger than my hand. Since it’s winter here in the southern hemisphere, it snowed a little on my birthday in June!

As an Athenian day student, I adjusted to the many changes that come with boarding at an Australian Christian girl’s school. I wear a uniform every day covering my entire body with the exception of my face and hands. I go to chapel every Thursday and attend marching practice a couple times a week. While these were all very strange changes for me, I was able to quickly accept them as part of life here at NEGS. The most difficult changes to adjust to were the numerous, and sometimes unnecessary, rules. You can only have your phone before dinner and after prep. Hair must be worn up with a ribbon at all times outside the boarding house. Younger grades must yield to upperclassmen when entering and exiting buildings. Backpacks aren’t allowed in the classrooms. Living at NEGS has definitely helped me appreciate the freedom and trust given to students at Athenian.

While the strict structure at NEGS is sometimes challenging, I’ve been provided with so many incredible opportunities and experiences that I wouldn’t have had anywhere else. Less than 24 hours in and I was already on an excursion to a farm with my buddy’s agriculture class. I learned about biodiversity and biosecurity, how to determine soil fertility, and the process of running a farm and raising cattle. Agriculture and farming play a significant part in the lives of many girls and their families at NEGS. About half of my class, only 40 girls total, grew up on a farm or riding horses. Many of these girls have a horse in the school’s stables; they play polocrosse or do equestrian after school and compete almost every weekend.

One of my favorite parts about going to school at NEGS is taking courses that Athenian doesn’t offer and learning new things without the pressure of grades. I’ve been able to take culinary classes and learn about design and fashion in my textiles class. My favorite academic classes are Geography and Science. We’re currently learning about global wellbeing, evolution and natural selection. Evolution is an especially interesting topic here because it sparks heated debate in our Christian Studies class. Attending Christian Studies and chapel has allowed me to better understand the concept of religion, and routines like saying grace before every meal have helped me appreciate a different lifestyle embraced here at NEGS.

The Australian lifestyle and the lifestyle at NEGS are very different than what I’m accustomed to at home. It is strange calling teachers by their last names and addressing them as Ma’am and Sir. While this is a sign of respect to teachers and administrators, I found that most students didn’t respect them at all. During my first lesson I was appalled by how many girls interrupted the teacher with disrespectful comments or bad attitudes masked as questions. When I expressed my shock to my buddy, she laughed and flippantly said that it isn’t even bad here compared to most Australian schools. I also noticed a different attitude towards LQBTQ+ people and issues. Hearing some of my friends use ‘queer’ as an insult or listening to them gossip about a trans student was an eye-opening experience for me. While I was prepared to possibly encounter this on exchange, I was surprised by racism towards the other exchange students. Australian girls would try to scare the Japanese exchange students and dehumanize the Indian exchange students by only referring to them as the Indians, even in their presence. This really upset me and I talked to my classmates about this behavior. While it was uncomfortable, I know it was the right thing to do and hopefully made a difference. I’m so thankful that I live in an accepting place like the Bay Area and am a part of a community like Athenian that supports all individuals and respects their identities.

Throughout the months leading up to exchange, I was becoming increasingly anxious about my time here. I was worried that I wouldn’t understand the classes, that the girls wouldn’t want to be friends with me, or that I wouldn’t like the food. But since arriving here, aside from a little homesickness, I’ve enjoyed myself immensely. Exchange has allowed me to step out of my comfort zone and submerge myself in a foreign environment that has challenged me and helped me grow as a person. I’ve made so many amazing friends, tried new foods and activities, and experienced my home country in ways unique to me. I’m beyond thankful for this opportunity. I appreciate the things I’ve learned here and the memories I’ll never forget.