Australia,  Oceania,  Storytime,  TDM,  Travel Journal

[story time] My semester exchange in Sydney (Australia): Between expectation and reality (1/2)

This month, you will be entitled to the old journeys made before the round-the-world trip.
Today, I am going to tell you about my stay in Australia in 2009 as an exchange student.

Part 1: Between expectation and reality
Part 2: But it wasn’t all bad: my travel diary in Australia

Part 1: Between expectation and reality

At that time, I was developing a passion for Australia. I enrolled in the “Australian Cinema” course at my business school, the course consisted of watching every Monday afternoon Australian cult films and dreaming of an exchange in Sydney.

One year later, after a year off in Norway, I was at the top: I had just finished with flying colors an internship with the 2nd best employer in Norway, whose recruitment process was very difficult, at the end of which I was able to save 10,000€. I passed all the Toefl ibt and Toeic tests and I had just landed one of two free places at the University of Technology in Sydney, saving me A$10,000 in tuition fees and giving me a 50% discount to all public services in the state of New South West. This is the grail for any international student in Australia.

It was with great optimism that I arrived in Sydney in July 2009, determined to find a job and settle there forever.

But all was not rosy

As this was my last semester, I was placed at the post-graduate level. Most of the students were already working and were financing their studies either through their jobs or through their savings (I’ll talk a little more about that below). Each semester cost $10,000. Classes were held after 7:00 p.m. All day long, I had free time for sightseeing or cooking. I only had 4 subjects (to choose from 8) but I had to attend classes every day.

The students who were already working had an incredible level. The presentations they were giving were at the corporate level and not at the academic level. It was very difficult to fit in because not only was I not part of the “working people” but I am Asian. My attempts to integrate into Australian groups were a complete failure, only Asian groups and international students accepted me. It’s a pity especially since we have homework to do in groups for all subjects.

I had never had to face racism before, but here I felt it every day, every second. Once, I was sitting with a French (and white) exchange student like me, several students came to talk to us naturally. Whereas when I was with Asian or Indian friends, everyone ignored us. I remember, when I was taking part in a game organized by the Sydney City Hall, several white people passed by, seeing some Asians, they said in a contemptuous way: “it’s a game for Asians”.

On TV, there were only white people. With the immigrants, the aborigines are at the bottom of society. Aboriginal neighborhoods are considered the most dreadful. In the streets, people flee them…

The Anglo-Saxon system

This paragraph only serves to give you some insights from my studies in Australia, as a refreshing parenthesis in the middle of this long text of negativity 😀

The Anglo-Saxon model differs from the French Bachelor – Master – Doctorate model. In France, students naturally continue their Master’s studies (equivalent to Bac+5), one of the many conditions to become an executive (at least in my industry). Only the Doctorate marks a separation between those who are in higher education and those who “really like to study”.

Whereas in Australia, after 4 years of study, students graduate and look for their first job. All other higher education studies (Master’s Degree, PhD) correspond to postgraduate studies. Only those who are interested in high-level teaching, senior positions or research continue their studies after this 4th year. And in general, Australians do so after a few years of work in order to have the means to finance their studies at a high cost. While international students prefer to finish their Master’s Degree first, to work later.

Thus, my 5th academic year (corresponding to the 3rd year of business school) = 1st postgraduate year.

The Anglo-Saxon system also favours personal research, hence the many files to be returned, alone or in groups. There are courses in the lecture hall but also TDs given by the teachers’ assistants (who sometimes work in the private sector). But this is very little compared to the number of courses given in a French business school.

As students, we all have access to a database of studies/theses (mostly in English) to do all the research we want. The library is also impressive and if we want, it is possible to bring in books from other partner universities. We can borrow up to 10 books at a time (and given the price of these books, this is a very good thing). Compulsory books are communicated to the library by the professors, so there is always one available at the library that we cannot borrow.

The fight against plagiarism is important and many means are put in place to avoid this scourge. All returned files must be uploaded to an online platform. This system scans the folder, matches its content with articles, websites, Google, old rendered folders… It then highlights passages that look like these sources to give a “plagiarism score” at the end. If the score exceeds a certain percentage, the folder must be rewritten.

Obviously, we have the right to quote passages from a book, a study. But in this case, we must adopt the Oxfordreferencing system, which is standardized and very strict. For example, I will paraphrase the general idea of a book and at the end of the sentence I will quote the source in writing (Ratnagar, 2004). At the end of the file, there will be a list of all the resources consulted and I will write Ratnagar, S., Trading Encounters: From the Euphrates to the Indus in the Bronze Age , New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2004.

The idea isn’t to force all students to come up with new ideas every 5 seconds, but to recognize the work of others, argue their reasoning (using evidence and studies) and also show the teachers the personal research done.

My home

At first, my mother found a room at an acquaintance’s house. This lady also housed two Vietnamese students. One of them was working really hard, in order to get a scholarship to finance his studies. In order to have a chance to get a scholarship, she had to obtain the high distinction, that is to say an average between 3.5 and 4 out of 4! Since the apartment was small, the only corner where she could sit was at the foot of the bed. She spent the whole day there, while I watched TV and flipped through my course chapters reading only the summary. Her specialty being accounting, it was normal for her to spend so much time. My specialty being marketing and communication, listening carefully in class was enough.

I gave so much during my gap year in Norway and since it was my last semester, my goal was to get 2 out of 4 just to pass my semester and graduate.

I might as well tell you that my “I don’t have to work too hard” attitude annoyed this family who saw a scholarship student coming in, spending money without counting the cost and who preferred to hang out at the Sydney Opera House rather than go to the library.

This apartment is located in a place that is a little bit crappy (according to Australian criteria). As my classes were finishing late, I had to either wait for the school bus to drop the students off at the nearby campus or take a cab. At $6-$7 a day for a cab and the agreement not being at its best with the family I was staying with, they decided to find me another apartment.

It was then that I realized how difficult it is for immigrants and students to survive in this beautiful city. Being a “scholarship holder” (I didn’t pay the tuition fees), I was not allowed on campus. My searches on classifieds sites only resulted in sunny rooms. I decided to visit one. The horror! I was shown a piece of glass balcony without curtains or anything. There was just a mattress, the whole building opposite could see me sleeping. For 120$ a week! Otherwise, I had the other option: take one of the three beds in a small room for 160$. I might as well tell you that I ran away as quickly as possible.

I get another appointment with Sleeping with the enemy who offers private rooms for $185 per week or a room to share with another girl for $145 per week. But the price is still too high for me.

Finally, I opted for a roommate in another apartment. The guy gave me a corner (2m²) in the living room, hidden behind a cupboard at 130$ a week. No door. I was allowed 2 windows and theoretically nobody could see me because the big wardrobe was hiding my bed. The payment was made every week by bank transfer. I had to make a deposit corresponding to 4 weeks of rent.

The rent was indicated per week because apparently the pay was paid every Friday.

Cohabitation went well with two other couples, who each had a private room (AUS$250/week). The Brazilian couple with whom I talked a lot was there on a student visa. However, the English courses were too expensive, they were obliged to get married, so only one person enrolled in the courses and the other one was entitled to the wife visa to work in a cafeteria in the suburbs of Sydney. The marriage was decided quickly, they got married to each other, without friends or family. I will learn later that when I return to Brazil, the couple will separate.

Impossible to find a job

Taking advantage of my long free days, I applied everywhere. That’s when reality whipped me in the face. Thousands of immigrants have the same wish as me. We are no longer in France where the mastery of the language makes integration difficult. Here, everyone speaks good English, or even perfectly good English (American, Canadian, English). In spite of my almost bilingual English, I am only one immigrant among others, whose lack of permanent resident status condemns me to not being able to apply anywhere. Indeed, most ads indicate that it is useless to apply without the residence card and that a copy of this famous card must be attached to the application.

I contacted an Australian girl who was on exchange in Paris at my school to ask for help. She confirmed to me how difficult it was to find a job, even for her. The salary for young graduates being 35000€ in France, at that time it was 35000$AU also in Australia but in Australian dollars and with a higher cost of living than in Paris.

While looking through the conditions to obtain a residence card, I discovered a kind of scale with points. You had to have 120 points to apply. The trades giving the most points were cooking or medicine. Even if I married an Australian, I didn’t have enough lol points.

I met a lot of French people on a working vacation visa in Australia, all of them came with the idea of finding a job, even a small one. But there were no jobs! You had to speak very good English, or wait for the harvest season and be paid a pittance. During my trip to Melbourne, I met a lot of English-speaking people who had been at the youth hostel for 3 months, looking for a job. They were perfectly English speaking, i.e. Canadian or American. Someone made them dream of a better life here, but in reality, there was no job, not even to be a waiter or a cleaning lady. Even if someone got a job during the working vacation visa, getting a work permit afterwards was almost mission possible. It was necessary to have the sponsorship of the employer who gave up very quickly because he would have no trouble finding a replacement. The only jobs that didn’t follow this logic were accounting, cooking or engineering at a very high level.

Of course, being very young, I took it all personally, feeling less than nothing and helpless. I spent hours and hours writing, rewriting my CV, rewriting letters… My visa was about to expire and I was not invited to a single interview. I didn’t know what I was going to become, what I was going to do… and every day my dream of settling in Australia became more and more unreachable.

At the end of my semester, with my average of 74/100 (rounded down to 2.5/4 according to their GPA system), I was pretty happy with myself. I learned a lot of things including the principles of advertising, which I would make my job 4 years later. The girl at the Vietnamese lady’s house looked down on me, she had 3.5 out of 4. I don’t know if she finally got her much desired scholarship.

After these 4 months in Australia, I finally understood the harsh reality, the real competition, the place of immigrants. I have never felt discriminated in France, having always followed the “royal road” (prepas classes, business school) and being perfectly integrated. I realized that the grass was not always greener elsewhere. That’s why, after several years, I still have a strong attachment to France, which the French criticize every day, but which is one of the countries giving the most opportunities to immigrants. After 13 years, I even obtained French nationality. At the ceremony, I couldn’t stop my tears from flowing as I sang La Marseillaise.

For my first world tour, I deliberately removed Australia from my list, not being comfortable with the racism I had to face. But I will come back one day, not as an immigrant but as a nomad.

I wanted to do this article to warn those who see Australia as a source of income for their world tour. Of course, I went there at the worst time (2009, global financial crisis and all that) and I was a young graduate so I was probably less likely to find a job. But I didn’t like feeling so much racism.

I know that many people want to take advantage of their working vacation visa in Australia, but be aware that you aren’t alone, you are competing with people whose native language is English, and you should always have a plan B.

Note: Objectively, I think I could have found a job in Australia by persevering more (staying one more semester while waiting to find an internship, then a permanent contract). It’s entirely my fault if I couldn’t make my dream come true. But I also think that this dream was not that important for me, otherwise I would have fought much harder. And then, when you see what I’m doing right now, frankly, I can’t complain.

Despite the difficult conditions in Australia, I spent one of the best moments of my life there (see my travel diary). I spent a large part of my hard-earned savings during my internship in Norway (which I will tell you about in another article), but without any regrets. From this experience, I got at least 3 positive points out of it:

  1. I learned very early on, comparing with my experiences in Australia or Norway, what a wonderful country France was. And that allowed me to put things into perspective for many, many years, even if there were some very difficult moments when I didn’t necessarily see the end of the tunnel.
  2. Even though I already had an almost bilingual level in English after my gap year in Norway, the 4 months in Australia on the resume were considered by many recruiters as “proof” of my level in English. I then obtained an internship & several permanent contracts thanks to my English, and therefore, thanks to these 4 months in Australia.
  3. It was one of my rare failures, and while at first I took it as a slap in the face, years later I realized that a bitter failure like that was bound to happen sooner or later, and it was lucky to have it so early in my career so that I could learn to digest it and come out stronger.

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