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Our enriching time at Monash University (by three GSD students)

Warwick’s Global Sustainable Development students have the chance to spend a semester abroad in their second year of study. In this article, Katharina Neisinger, Maja Voelkel, and Luke Netherclift reflect on their time at Monash University in Australia, and how it was cut short by the outbreak of COVID-19.

April 2020.

Bushfires, heavy rain and a pandemic - that’s certainly not how we imagined our semester abroad. Despite - but also due to - these challenges and disruptions, this opportunity helped us grow and learn as individuals nevertheless.

When we set out for Australia in January, we were excited for a month of travelling down the East Coast together, then living and studying in Melbourne until at least June. However, in mid-March we had to repatriate to Germany and the UK, respectively, due to the worsening COVID-19 situation. In the rest of this article, we reflect upon different aspects of our short but enriching experience abroad, by interviewing ourselves and each giving our personal responses.

From left to right: Katharina Neisinger, Maja Voelkel, Luke Netherclift

How did you find working within and across borders?

Kat: I didn't quite know what to expect of my experience in Australia in terms of how different it would be. Language, food, and other “basic” components highlighted ever more nuanced differences such as human behaviour and societal norms; and vast geographical traits resulted in a journey of exploring part of Australia’s land, politics and heritage, nurturing me personally on ways of being and perceptions of my surroundings. I am extremely grateful to get to know amazing people, whose friendships I know will last long.

Maja: As part of Warwick SEED, all three of us were supposed to strengthen the partnership with Monash SEED, our twin society. Luckily, Luke and I were able to meet with one exec member who gave us insights and good advice on how to move forward. For me, this idea exchange underlined the value of making use of connections outside of your usual environment; it can be quite inspirational.

Luke: I had experienced the early stages of burnout during late November and early December during term 1 as a result of overworking and having a university social life. It was an unsustainable lifestyle which my mum would describe as “burning the candle at both ends”! Australia offered an opportunity to reset my batteries, reflect on this challenging time and most importantly understand the power of saying NO. Throughout the first month of Australia where we were travelling, I had a few meetings but on the whole I hit pause on pursuing my start-ups, letting other people take the reign. As someone who had become intoxicated by this hustle culture, I learnt that a slow lifestyle is one which can bring joy and letting go of things is often best for you. If you are not at your best, your startup never will be!

What has your study experience been like?

Kat: The modules that I chose at Monash focus more intensely on a specific subject than I was used to at my GSD-home department. This allowed me for instance to delve more into an economics-oriented module on energy markets and expand on my global knowledge by comparing Australian jurisdiction and policies to European ones. When Monash decided to transition the semester to online-teaching, there was a lot of support in place and I can even still get to know course mates virtually. The change of time zones, together with Monash’s apparent preference for various small assessments spread across the semester, does make the situation challenging for the three of us. Through the various “check-in” assessments as well as our high interest in the course content, we are being pushed to stay on top of this odd semester and to learn intensely about our own work and study habits throughout this challenge. This sense of independence and re-thinking of time and learning makes it a whole new and ultimately rewarding cross-cultural study experience.

How has the journey helped shape your professional development?

Maja: At Monash, I made connections with the Sustainability Institute and with a woman working at an interesting business in Melbourne who I spoke to about internships. Although I couldn't complete my plans, I'd say that Australia has helped me gain confidence, independence and networking skills. I think I can now better decide on my post-Bachelor's path.

Luke: Through working on my start up with team members who were back in the UK, it highlighted how time-zones, distance and not being in physical contact with team members should never be a barrier towards building something you are passionate about. One of the key learnings I had from this is to respect time-zones when recording podcasts and organising team meetings: it is essential that you understand and respect the time-zones of others so everyone can maintain a work-life balance and perform at their best!

Kat: It has definitely deepened my interest in environmental sustainability and social entrepreneurship. I would have liked to start a project on the bioeconomy at Monash, as well as pursue an internship at Melbourne’s B Lab. Although these opportunities have physically vanished, I am using the time “saved” to primarily invest in my education, pursue virtual projects and research, as well as re-connect to living in Germany.

Do you have some final reflections, and what opportunities do you see for the future?

Maja: I'm sad about the missed opportunities. I wanted to do an internship in July in Melbourne and had already made connections. There was just so much more on my list for Australia! But I know the whole world is in this situation right now and we have to accept it. I've now got the mindset of "one door closes and another one opens": surely there are benefits to get out of this story, too. Maybe I can find an interesting place to work at in Germany over the summer, for example. One thing that I hope more people will realise during this time, though, is that it's okay to not be productive. It seems like everywhere is screaming to use the 'gained' time efficiently, you almost feel bad when you just chill out. We should recognise that this could also be a pause for our minds from the busy life we usually lead.