A new environment for personal transformation: what Australia has meant to me


When developing an academic career, sticking in one’s homeland has its pros and cons.

On your home turf there will usually be at least a few family members with whom you share your day-to-day life. At home, you will be able to frequent many culturally authentic restaurants and traditional delicacies.

At home, you will never have a language issue, making it easy to comprehend everything that’s happening around you, pick up on all the jokes, and laugh at the right time. You will be immune to homesickness and all customs will be meaningful, even if you cannot personally tolerate them. Your labour will always make some contribution toward your own people, even if it just puts small change in your own pocket.

Studying in the environmental sector will be real to you in a visceral way because you’ve spent your life there, and the field trips won’t seem like they are a voyage of discovery into the great unknown. Nurses and doctors will contribute directly to their fellow citizens, even when they diagnose incorrectly; and your imports and exports must benefit the homeland economy, despite the horrendous taxes that you are obligated to pay.

In contrast, your country might be geographically isolated and cost a fortune to travel beyond its borders. It might offer unpleasant temperature extremes and weather that is a continuous struggle. Worse, your country might have internal political issues or unfavourable relationships with other countries, and even be under economic sanctions. In some countries, options and choices might be almost non-existent.

There might be no alternatives in educational institutions available to you, and even one’s ideal field of research might be out of the question; in fact, you might be forced to study what the state decides is good for you. In some countries, students can battle to find a sympathetic supervisor and a scholarship to continue education at a higher level, which can become even more intractable due to your ‘incompatible’ family background or ancestry.

ready to take the leap
Ready to take the leap overseas (Farzin is second from the left)

Even if you have had the luxury of accessing higher education in your home country, and then been fortunate enough to have had opportunity to study further abroad in a country that truly recognises humans as individuals, your minimal exposure to English back home will almost certainly be a major barrier to future communication in English. This will make normal lecture comprehension difficult, writing and publishing in English-language journals a monumental task, and finding relevant employment in a completely different cultural setting once graduated an outcome you might never think was possible.

Living abroad in a country whose language and culture are totally foreign to your upbringing clearly has some initial challenges, but there are also life-changing benefits that can come your way. Stepping out of your comfort zone is the commencement of a journey of self-realisation and the surest way to gauge and realise your true potential.

The experience of interacting and making friends on a global scale is worth more than all the literature in the world, and exposure to a multitude of unique cultures from diverse backgrounds is the greatest broadener of your mind and knowledge. Being back home might have been safer for guaranteeing employment at the cost of limiting yourself to a little box, even if this comes with the consolation of almost never being entirely unsupported. Only away from home are you forced to manage your budget as a matter of life and death; living abroad, you become truly independent.

For me, this living-abroad experience happened in Australia.

That Australians speak English does makes it easier for most international students to understand and be understood because by the time your reach post-graduate level, you will almost certainly have already had at least some exposure to the language, even if it is in the form known as ‘Engrish’. However, Aussie slang takes time to master (as I imagine pretty much any country has analogous linguistic hurdles to overcome)! Australia offers student visas to most candidates accepted into an educational institution. Australia has more than forty universities, of which some are globally renowned.

Of course, the eligibility requirements vary enormously, but Australia provides students a multitude of choices when it comes to field and research selection, as well as several scholarship options for top-ranked candidates. The country provides wonderful work opportunities to graduates and the Temporary Graduate Visa allows outstanding and competitive international students the opportunity to stay and continue to work after graduating.

the calendar restarts
Leaving home, the calendar is reset to zero

Australia provided me an opportunity to do a PhD in my chosen discipline, for which I shall always be grateful. Australia has so far provided me with the chance to work at three different universities and gain experience from many unique projects. The team I am currently working with has enabled me to work with highly respected international researchers from other countries and most recently, I have had the opportunity to discover how to develop a grant application to meet the high standards of the Australian Research Council.

The natural heritage of the continent of Australia and the history of its indigenous people — Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders — are at the core of human evolution, global dispersal of our species, and their evolutionary interactions with the changing landscapes and biota from time immemorial. They offer fascinating topics of perennial interest to an array of researchers, notwithstanding its popular appeal, particularly through creative multimedia presentations and the Arts.

The Modelling Node of the ARC Centre of Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH) here at Flinders University in which I now work has facilitated my understanding of the culturally inclusive and globally significant continental history of people and the environment of Australia. The Node has given me the opportunity to investigate the causes of human immigrations and settlements, and the consequences of these for biodiversity and landscapes, the effects of climate change on the distributions of water, food, and other fundamental resources in the world’s driest inhabited continent, and the processes responsible for driving transformations. What were the responses of Australia’s endemic biota and human inhabitants, how did they adapt to periods of prolonged climatic stress, and what can we deduce from the transformations of the past, to benefit the future of Australia’s environment and society?

I am extremely grateful to Australia for providing me with these wonderful opportunities, which were not likely to come my way clinging to a career in my homeland.

Dr Farzin Shabani, who hails from Iran, is a Postdoctoral Fellow based at Flinders University