Marta Wilbrink

I had known for months that I was going on exchange. I had completely accepted the reality of living in a foreign country without my family for more than a month. I had been on community service and Round Square trips without my parents before, so I thought I was thoroughly prepared for whatever was coming my way. Going onto the escalator up to the security line at LAX, however, was like taking a giant leap of faith. It was hard for me to go because I didn’t know what was there waiting for me. That particular moment taught me a lot about taking risks. I just have to dive right in and take the plunge – it might be worth it. In this case, it certainly was.

Despite my moment of panic in security, the journey to Melbourne was uneventful. The grueling 16-hour flight passed quickly with the help of plenty of movies. Australian customs was also a breeze – because I was unaccompanied and under 16 I went in a separate line that took less than 10 minutes. I took a deep breath before walking out of the security area, all three bags in hand. When I saw my host, Annie, waiting for me, I was so overjoyed to finally be reunited with my best friend from Australia.

The view from our house on the farm.

Immediately after meeting her family, we packed my bags in the car and began the long ride home. Annie and her family live on a farm two hours outside of Melbourne and an hour outside the nearest city, Ballarat. It was shocking for me to live on a farm so far away from a city. I’m used to biking 5 minutes to pick up groceries; however, I got used to living on a farm. I learned that sometimes a commute to school or the grocery store is worth it for the amazing experience of living surrounded by beautiful countryside.

The Sixteen Apostles, a stop on the Great Ocean Road

The day after I arrived, we packed up our things, and began a road trip along the Great Ocean Road. The Great Ocean Road felt like the Highway One of Australia, complete with breathtaking views of the coast and charming towns all along the way. This was a great opportunity to get to know my host family before school started in a week.

Abbey and I in front of one of the school buildings.

Going to school for the first time was incredibly difficult. I was really scared to go into an environment where I knew absolutely no one. Annie and I were in different year-levels. She introduced me to a few people in my grade and helped me with my schedule, but besides that, I was on my own. I learned a lot in the first few days of term–about being outgoing and persevering through tough situations. By the end of my first week, I had many friends and knew a lot about Australia and the differences between their schools and Athenian.

Me and my sheep at the sheep showing competition.

In Australia, not only are the course selections different, but so are the ways that school is structured. One of the unique opportunities I had at Ballarat Grammar was to take an Agriculture class, which is a standard course offering in Australia. In Vet Ag, I learned about farm management as well as about buying and selling sheep. In our practicals, I had the amazing experience of working on the school farm every Thursday, participating in a “Sheep Showing Competition,” and witnessing a lamb birth.

Another thing that was different about Australian school was that each student is placed in a house once they enter year 7. It reminded me a lot of Hogwarts because each house has its own uniform for certain days and a crest complete with a fancy Latin motto. My school had 12 different houses, each one of them in pairs of brother-sister houses. From years 7-12, students participate in many activities and competitions in their houses. As I experienced, there is a lot of house spirit and everyone gets quite competitive. While I was attending Grammar, they held an annual house competition called Chorales. Brother-sister houses do a singing and dance routine to an assigned song, performing in front of the whole school. Everyone was required to participate, including me. Our song was “Funky Town” and we won first place!

Me at the Ballarat Wildlife Park

On the weekends, Annie and I would try to jam in as much time together as possible. While we spent a lot of time doing typical tourist things–going to the Wildlife Park to pet kangaroos and koalas–some of the things I enjoyed the most came from just being with her as she went through her day-to-day life. I would come to her Netball games (an Australian sport that’s like basketball but with the rules of ultimate Frisbee) and then we’d stay and watch part of the neighboring Footie game. Or, we’d spend an afternoon on the farm riding motorcycles and checking out the shearing shed. These are the moments I treasure the most, because it’s such a unique experience only exchange could have given me. Because I wasn’t a tourist, I had many other opportunities and I was able to see the country in a different way. Australia is not all about the accent and the bizarre marsupials. Australian people really have a strong spirit and connection to their country that you can only really understand by living there.

Annie and I at Pylon Lookout.

By August 16, my trip was coming to a close. I had already bid adieu to all of my incredible school friends, and only had one weekend left with my host family. I was heartbroken that exchange had come to pass so quickly; however, we made the most of our last weekend together. We took a plane up to Sydney and had the time of our lives exploring the city. From the Harbor Bridge and the Opera House to the gorgeous coastline around Bondi Beach, Sydney really had it all.

My last day was so emotional for me. It was so hard to reckon with the fact that I was actually leaving Australia–my home away from home–and my second family. I know that I will be back as soon as possible to visit my amazing friends and family. I will forever cherish my time in Australia, and all the little moments that brought me so much joy.