Sierra Garcia - STUDENT PROFILE
Stanford in Australia, Autumn 2016-17
Major: Earth Systems, oceans and climate track
College year while abroad: Junior
About the photo: This was me doing one of my absolute favorite activities in the world on the Great Barrier Reef-- free diving! I feel utterly at home when I'm underwater in the ocean, and I'd been dreaming about exploring the Great Barrier Reef for my whole life.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS WITH SIERRA
Why did you choose to study in Australia?
Going to Australia, and especially seeing the Great Barrier Reef, had been a dream of mine for my entire life. The heavy emphasis on hands-on fieldwork and outdoor learning in Australia is unmatched by any other BOSP program. I love the outdoors and study ocean science, so studying abroad in Australia was a no-brainer for me.
What were your expectations before you went and how did they change once you were in Australia?
The program met (and exceeded) my positive expectations in many ways. One thing that surprised me was the group dynamic. I had previously studied abroad through Stanford@SEA before going to Australia, and I expected the group culture to be more or less similar to the small and tight-knit group of 21 students from that program. The Australia group was almost twice as large, and it took a lot longer to get to know everyone. However, I definitely wouldn't trade out the group of 39 people we had in my year in Australia! Even though the dynamic was different, I wouldn't say it was worse or better, and I loved the community that we formed.
What were some of the academic benefits from studying abroad in Australia?
The variety of field work exposure I encountered in Australia was unparalleled by anything I had done on campus. The mandatory Targeted Research Project, specific to the Australia program, requires that each student focus on a particular topic for the entire quarter. For me, this resulted in a tremendous amount of learning. I can now safely harvest coral samples from a reef, analyze coral tissue in a lab, perform rudimentary stats analysis on data, and adapt to the many changes and bumps inevitable in research. I have been fascinated by coral reef biology and ecology for a long time, so the in-depth learning about methods for quantifying coral bleaching was a dream for my inner ocean nerd.
What did you learn about yourself while studying abroad?
I gained a lot of perspective about what I want for a personally meaningful career. Although I've felt for years that I would prefer mixing my love of ocean science with my love of education, communication, and advocacy, I've also had strong hesitations about whether or not I'm making a mistake by not following a more traditionally scientific route. Australia did not provide me with an epiphany that resolved my doubts, but it did give me great spaces and opportunities to reflect more on what I want, what makes me happy, and what a meaningful career looks like to me. I still have lots of uncertainties about my career path (don't we all?), but I know that taking the time away from Stanford's campus immersed in all that Australia had to offer afforded me a better perspective for considering those uncertainties.
What was the most challenging experience you encountered while abroad and what did you learn from it?
Struggling with health issues while abroad was definitely the most difficult part for me. It was especially challenging because we moved location so often that it was practically impossible to visit a single health care provider for more than one or two visits. It was a powerful exercise in perspective and coping skills, because I had to constantly remember to focus on appreciating and accepting the experiences I was having, and not focus in on what I couldn't change.
What was the biggest cultural adjustment you had to make?
Australian culture is quite similar to the United States in a lot of ways. However, a distinct difference was the general attitudes towards, and treatment of, people of color. I do not think Australia is necessarily more racist or prejudiced than the US, but rather that it is far easier to detect such differences when expressed in a manner different than what you're used to. Because of this, prejudice that may seem overt and shocking to me may seem commonplace to an Australian--and, in some situations I suspect, vice versa. Operationalizing race and ethnicity within a somewhat different societal norm each day was an adjustment that was certainly different, but also extremely valuable, because it offered commonplace yet important opportunities for reflection and growth.
What was your favorite part of everyday life?
Definitely the opportunity to be immersed in stunning nature. I might wander into class and encounter a five foot Amethystine Python casually wrapped around my professor (this actually happened one day), or hop into my bathing suit for a quick hour to hang out with turtles, sharks, and rays on the Great Barrier Reef. Teatime was also fantastic. Morning tea and afternoon tea became so habitual and comforting that I wished I could bring it back with me to the US.
What was the most memorable experience you had while in Australia?
Definitely seeing the green flash at sunset for the first time. We were all gathered at the tip of a tiny island in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef to watch the one day when the sun would set exactly as the moon was rising. I'd long since given up seeing the green flash, since I had lived on a ship for five weeks and been one of the only people to never see it, even when I was looking at the right place and time. It wasn't on my mind at all as I watched the sun set that evening in Australia, so when I saw it I was stunned. To top it off, a large fish leaped out of the water in front of the moon as it rose, and I floated in the shallows for a while surrounded by shovelnose rays (large somewhat shark-like sand dwellers). It was just magical.
What 5 words would you use to describe the experience?
Exhausting, magical, rapid, hot, dreamlike
What was your favorite food?
I really liked passionfruit yogurt! It's not really a typical Australian food, but it was one of my favorite things there because it was fairly cheap, the dairy was really tasty in a way I've never quite encountered in the US, and it always had whole passionfruit seeds still in it.
What was the most valuable item you took on the program?
My wide brimmed sun hat with a chin strap. It floated in water, and I wore it most days. I loved that hat, and it covered my whole face and neck from the sun when I was wearing it. Sadly, I forgot it on a bus on the penultimate day of the program. That being said, everybody receives the gift of a University of Queensland hat with a brim and chin strap on the first day of orientation in Australia, so I wouldn't have been hat-less even if I hadn't brought my own hat along.
What was your favorite music/band you discovered in Australia?
Although it's quite a cliché, I really loved "Down Under" by Men at Work. It's possibly the most quintessential Australian song ever, and a lot of people in the US are familiar with it ('I come from a land down under...'). However, while in Australia I listened to the whole thing and paid attention to the lyrics for the first time, and gained a whole new appreciation for the song and all of the Aussie-specific references it makes--not to mention the catchy tune!