Cairns to Coldest Town in United States

Ruaela R., Bachelor of Science
Clarkson University, USA (Semester 1, 2017)

Balancing full-time study and a heavy work schedule, I found time running away from me. Thus, it was almost a shock that I found myself on Exchange at Clarkson University in Upstate New York, just below Montreal. I had submitted all my exchange documents and received my Visa, but left little brain time to process that I was actually going to be boarding a plane to the other side of the world. The day before my departure to the States, I threw my warmest clothes into a suitcase, downloaded some bookmarked reads onto a kindle, shoved my headphones, sketchpad and laptop into a backpack, checking twice for my important documents, and reflected with disdain on why I thought going to literally the coldest town the United States for winter was a good idea.

I arrived in the States a few weeks early to fit in some travel before my course started, the units that matched up with my study plan were cancelled due to lack of interest. Panicking, yet emboldened by my newfound skills on a snowboard, I started firing emails at my exchange university and managed to land myself a spot in their research semester program. Instead of the suburban spot beneath the Rustbelt, I was going to be living off campus doing an Environmental Policy Minor and big data Integrated Research Project in the Adirondacks, a 6-million-acre park preserve and conservation project. It was 9 students living full time in a house, with the garage as our classroom, on the side of a lake in a town with a population only just pushing 5000.

New York State is NOT New York City, and can’t just wear cute outfits, and strut your way to dumplings and prosecco, as previously thought.

Doing Clarkson’s Integrated Research Project was interesting. Despite a 15 credit-hour course, I was in the classroom for 38 hours a week, from 9am-5pm on top of study, readings and assignments. You also had to go to class- crazy! There was none of QUT’s recorded lecture magic, and mental breaks, or days off for life errands. If you wanted to miss even a half day of class, you had to have proper reasoning. I was disappointed in myself for getting 7’s on my pass/fail semester, but with the temperature being -20 Celsius outside and being secluded in the park, there was nothing else to do but freeze or study.

Living in the massive Adirondack Park and doing research meant that I got to have incredible experiences. I got to partake in longitudinal data studies, which meant becoming well versed in the winter ecology, and doing 2 mile walks in snow shoes documenting animal tracks around the frozen lakes. In another class I had to walk 300 meters out onto the ice of a lake, and drill 6 inches through the compact to collect zoo plankton. I got to study the philosophy and art inspired by the Adirondacks, and winter camp for 3 days in -20 degrees with only peanut butter, apples and spam to eat. My true delight was the two months after the course that I spent living out of the back of a friends car, camping and polar plunging in all the forests along the West Coast.

I think we are meant to romanticize exchange. We are expected to come back having had a glorious time, feeling euphoric having had epiphanies. My exchange was actually a true test of my mental health, capacity and tolerance. But I got through it, and I think there is a lot of merit in that in itself. I think everyone who can do exchange, should, even if it is just to throw yourself into a crazy time for a while.