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Pride and Poppies
Kelly Rehan (University of Wollongong, Australia)


Cara Walkam knows exactly why she decided to study abroad at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (UMass). But she prefers to keep it secret.

‘It’s an unbelievably stupid reason,’ she says.

The normally eloquent law and languages student clams up and rubs her forehead nervously at the thought.

It wasn’t the location or the school’s reputation, or that it offered her specific subjects.

It was a song.

‘One of my favorite bands, The Pixies, wrote a song called “U-Mass,”’ she says, as if entering a guilty plea.

As the song goes, ‘Of the April birds and the May bee, oh baby, University of Massachusetts, please.’

One look at Walkam and it’s conceivable that an alternative rock song steered her halfway across the planet. She wears black-rimmed glasses, but they’re peppered with rhinestones. Her espresso-toned hair is tied in a careless ponytail, but it shows off the killer neckline of her black dress. She’s smart, but she’s no dork.

The 21-year-old University of Wollongong (UOW) student crossed the Pacific for her semester-long stint in August 2007. After years of watching American television shows and movies, Walkam felt she knew what to expect.

‘I thought, “It’s America, it’s going to be the same as here,”’ she says, laughing at her naivety. ‘But it was so different.’

In the States, Walkam faced the harsh reality of being the ‘other.’

‘My resident assistant came up to me and said, “Wow, you’re the girl from Australia,” and I started speaking to her and she said, “I didn’t expect your English to be so good,”’ she recalls.

As Walkam discovered, Australian and American universities aren’t so similar after all. Indeed, new findings by the Australian Council on Educational Research show American university students have a more ‘enriching educational experience’ compared to their Australian and New Zealander counterparts.

Walkam considers the ‘brilliant’ professors the best American university feature, but she takes issue with the study’s findings.

‘In America, I’d hardly work on an essay and get 100 per cent,’ Walkam said. ‘I felt it was too easy. They gave you marks just for trying. In Australia, it’s hard to do well unless you’re a genius.’

Besides the grade inflation, Walkam had to adjust to larger aspects of American campus culture. University pride, for instance, took getting used to.

‘People really get attached to their schools in America,’ she says. ‘It’s so odd but so nice. I wish we had that here, but school patriotism’s not a big thing in Australia.’

Tailgating before football games, sporting UMass t-shirts and sharing in the camaraderie of ‘being part of the university family’ were all new concepts to Walkam, who previously thought university’s sole purpose was confined to a classroom.

That vocal pride in one’s school transferred to vocal pride in oneself in class.  The heightened level of participation by the chatty American students surprised Walkam.

Unlike her American peers, she grew up learning about tall poppy syndrome.

Unknown in the U.S., tall poppy syndrome describes a pompous, self-promoting attitude. Publicly displaying knowledge in class might be linked to such behaviour.

‘Visualize a field of poppies with one taller than the others—it sticks out and draws attention to itself,’ explains Carly Ludbrook, an American student studying at UOW. ‘There’s a stigma in Australia that you shouldn’t be that tall poppy.’

Ludbrook shares many of Walkam’s study abroad frustrations, including marking discrepancies and unexpected culture shock. While tall poppies surrounded Walkam in America, Ludbrook felt like the only one for miles in Australia’s quiet classrooms.

‘Back home, there was so much interaction and classroom discussion,’ Ludbrook says. ‘I feel like I am the only one engaging in class here. It’s a really strange feeling.’

Ludbrook’s study abroad experience is, by every definition, uncommon. For years she planned to study in England. But like Walkam, less-than-solid reasoning sent her packing elsewhere.

‘I was in upstate New York in the middle (of) winter and randomly decided I wanted to learn to surf,’ Ludbrook says. ‘That’s how I chose Australia.’

Ludbrook first studied abroad at UOW in the spring of 2001. The next year, she returned again for spring session. After meeting her future husband in Australia, she extended her stay. Since becoming a permanent resident in 2006, Ludbrook took up a Masters degree and now coordinates UOW’s Study Abroad & Exchange program.

‘I’m in a unique position because not only do I get to meet Americans studying in Australia, but I also interact with students going off to America who come back with their impressions,’ Ludbrook said.

Class participation is a major issue that often arises in the feedback.  The American students are too dominating or the Australian students aren’t making an effort, she hears.

But professors, Ludbrook says, don’t mind a tall poppy or two.

‘I’ve heard from UOW academics that they enjoy having Americans in class because they are more engaging than the Australian students,’ she says.

But the question remains: Do students believe American universities offer a better experience? The real answer, according to Walkam and Ludbrook, is less black-and-white than the findings show.

‘For the most part, UOW students find it easier in the U.S., but I get students who do think differently,’ Ludbrook said. ‘Ultimately, it’s not the place that determines the quality of education.’

Poppy height aside, Walkam and Ludbrook believe the overseas learning experience offers benefits that greatly outweigh the drawbacks.

Just keep your eyes open for the right opportunity.

Or if you’re anything like Walkam, keep your ears open too.

Kelly Rehan is a Masters of Journalism student at the University of Wollongong. A native of Sioux City, Iowa in the U.S., Kelly has focused much of her postgraduate work on the differences between Australian and American culture.

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