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Kristine Shaw: Australia

Hi all! My name is Kristine Shaw and I am currently a Junior at Wofford double majoring in Biology and English. This past fall I had the privilege of spending four months in Queensland, Australia with the School for International Training’s (SIT) “Rainforest, Reef, and Cultural Ecology Program.” Easily the best decision I’ve ever made, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to share with you all a little bit about what made this semester so incredible.

Leaving the RDU airport on August 23rd with hiking boots, a sleeping bag, and mess kit to my name, I quite literally had no plan beyond trying to get some sleep during the brutal 26 hours of flying ahead. This quickly became a theme for the next four months, encouraging me to embrace a spontaneity that was both unfamiliar and immensely rewarding. I was quickly welcomed into a group of 18 students from all over the states, led by our legendary director, Tony Cummings.

There was never a time within those four months that I felt like going into the program as the only Wofford student hindered my experience. I now have 18 adventurous, inspiring, and hilarious new friends who I know I’ll keep in touch with for many years to come.

These friendships only grew as we shared the close quarters of Global Backpackers in Cairns, our homebase between field excursions and weekly trips. With a communal kitchen and rooftop overlooking the water, Global quickly became the spot for nightly sunsets, ‘family dinners’, teaching random backpackers the rules of beer pong, and… I guess... the occasional studying.

If you’re looking for a program which mirrors the structure of typical college classes, though, look elsewhere. “Class” this past semester consisted of backpacking through the rainforest, swimming in waterfalls, camping in the Outback, and the supplemental PowerPoint slide when Tony felt like being studious.

The textbooks and pencils that usually weigh down my backpack at Wofford were quickly replaced by a GoPro, bug spray, and a singular “RiteintheRain” field notebook. Exams on Moodle were traded out for quizzes on snorkel at the Great Barrier Reef, our professor pointing out fish and asking, “What family?”

Lectures took the form of sitting around a campfire while Uncle Russ told dreamtime stories about why the crow is black. “Labs” weren’t three hours of tedious titrations, but camera trapping for musky rat kangaroos, python hunting around the Crater Lakes, or waiting in silence for a shy platypus to surface. And through all of this, I am 100% confident that I learned more than I ever would’ve during four months in a classroom.

I can’t talk about my experience abroad without highlighting the final portion of the program, unique to SIT. Divided into three sections (Rainforest, Reef, and Cultural Ecology), the entirety of the semester is intended to prepare students for the month-long “Independent Study Project” or ISP at the end of the program. Given a stipend for housing/food/travel, we were turned loose to find an internship or research project anywhere in Australia our heart desired. I had some friends spend their month camping on Kangaroo Island, studying koalas and macropods. Another worked at a bat hospital, nursing baby fruit bats by hand. One student worked in Perth on a boat to ID injured, resident dolphins in the bay.

I was fortunate enough to secure the opportunity to do research on a remote island 20 miles off the coast of Cairns, situated directly on the Great Barrier – Lizard Island Research Station. I knew I wanted my research project to focus on marine ecosystems and coral reefs, and in order to collect viable data, inquired about getting a boat license for personal fieldwork. Approved by Tony, I took an online course and set up a test with a local (who, while I was 30 questions deep into the exam, informed me that Pete Davidson had sat at the same table taking the test a month prior for a movie he was filming… flex).

On October 13th, I boarded a tiny 12-person plane and set off for what would become the best 6 weeks of my life. Staying in cabins on the beach, my day-to-day life looked as follows: throw on a bathing suit, head for the dive shed, load up my gear, and decide which reef I wanted to take the boat out to that morning.

An underwater slate in hand, I spent the next month and a half measuring hard coral cover, noting the abundance and grouping behavior of tiny coral-dwelling fish called “gobies”, and—just because they’re really damn cool—chasing after sharks, rays, and sea turtles.

Evenings were filled with sunsets swims, happy hour, and harassing Carl, Vale, and Fabio (the three lucky PhD students with whom I shared a cabin) to let me watch their trials or attend their fishing trips. While the prospect of an independent study was daunting, I learned so much about my growing passion for marine conservation and now have my own legitimate claim to research and field studies.

If you made it this far, I’ll leave you with my unsolicited advice:

The decision to study abroad is one I will be eternally grateful that I made, and though I obviously would love for you to choose Australia and say hello to Tony for me, I encourage you to find a program that will truly challenge you, whatever that may look like. Don’t let the fear of doing something out of the box stop you from pursuing an experience which you’re inspired by. Take the risk, embrace the spontaneity and change, and cherish whatever moment you find yourself in.


Kristine Shaw


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