The Exchange Experience

This semester I got a last minute opportunity to go on exchange, long after I had given up on the thought of ever living out that fresher dream. I never thought I had a chance of getting approved for exchange and with the whole process of trying to match up with my degree, Petroleum Engineering and previously Mining, it all seemed a bit to difficult. It wasn’t until the legend also known as the mobility officer, Trish Ransfield suggested I look at Miri, home to Curtin University’s Sarawak Malaysia campus. I thought, Malaysia what’s there? After a bit of Google mapping I discovered it was in the west coast of Borneo. Snug smack bang in the middle of Indonesia and the Philippines, a hop skip and a jump across the gulf from Thailand and Cambodia; not a bad spot if you ask me. The only one thing standing in my way was the fact I was extremely broke. With the Australian Government offering the New Colombo Plan and OS-Help loan, which I’m pretty sure all students are eligible for now. I was able to afford a one-way ticket to South East Asia with plenty of extra spending money!

After two attempts at departure and an overnight stopover in the shopping haven that never sleeps KL, I arrived in Miri. Walking out of the terminal, busy in the act of trying to catch an Uber I looked up to a set of grinning big white teeth behind a sign with my name on it. I guess replying to the email about why I missed my first flight wasn’t such a bad idea after all. I met Sun, a postgrad from Mauritius with a couple other friends, they picked me up in a minivan and took scenic route through the city and up to the Uni campus. I was extremely grateful for this friendly welcome and the boys warm hospitality, especially as the overnight stopover had me looking a bit rough with minimal sleep after a long night of watching the Olympics with friendly travellers in the bars of KL. Sun became a quick friend and got me completely set me up with everything short of tucking me into bed that night, and by the next weekend he had organised for me a day’s diving with the local dive shop. I happily obliged, and the next Sunday I was in the scuba diving in the South China Sea. The diving was amazing, with so many different fish species, many looked like long lost cousins of the Northern Australian fish I was used to seeing though slightly different colors and patterns as well as plenty of seriously big Grouper, Coral Trout, Flatworm and Nudibranch.

 

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When choosing where to go on exchange, our Curtin campus in Malaysia has a long list of both academic and logistical benefits. However, the one thing I noticed that was not necessarily advertised was the amazing group of people that you get to share the experience with. I was one of six students from Bentley doing the semester in Miri, and I instantly had myself a group of mates. They arrived earlier than me and during O week had quickly become buds with a much larger crew of new international students. It was the most welcoming atmosphere and made me feel right at home. The guys had already organised hire cars for the semester, which were cheap as chips (despite the occasional breakdown). Having a car allowed us to adventure around Malaysia and Borneo. The first week I arrived the group managed to convince me to accompany them on a hike through the nearby national park. I am definitely not a hiker and will only do it if it leads to the surf. However, I went with them taking the one pair of shoes I had; my trusty pluggers. The hike was nice and easy with an awesome waterfall at the end, there’s no better feeling than arriving at a fresh water oasis after trekking your way through a tropic jungle. It such a multicultural place and I have made friends with many other students from Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Egypt, Turkmenistan, Thailand, Sri Lanka to Papua New Guinea and even Fiji just to name a few.

The staff at the university were awesome, two of the guys from Bentley and I were set up to live in a fully self-contained flat on campus. It’s surprising how much more time you have in your life when you can wake up at 8:50 for a 9 o’clock lecture. The teaching staff were brilliant, smaller cohorts allowing them to help whenever necessary and it turns out everyone speaks English better than most people at home. Back at Bentley, I have special equity requirements for study, so I was worried about how that would be handled. As soon as I arrived, I was contacted by the lovely Jessica from student affairs, who was very helpful and accommodated my every need, making me feel as comfortable as possible. They even noticed the plastic sleeve I’d been using for a pencil case and at the end of semester gave me a present pack which included a brand new Curtin Uni pencil case, I was pretty stoked.

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The overseas students were really well looked after, with Awang from international office organising endless activity and volunteering options. We had the option of visiting nearby caves, local villages and longhouses on the river. Through CV! I even ended up having the fun experience of teaching at a local Malaysian school on a Saturday morning, something I’d definitely love to do again in the future.

Borneo is a serious traveller’s location so of course, we spent the weekends and tuition free weeks canvassing the region. Between the Bentley crew; we ended up visiting Langkawi, Penang, spotting orangutans in Kuching, walking world heritage listed jungle caves, dive courses in Kota Kinabalu, week long camping mountain treks in Sabah and surfing empty barrels in Java all during the semester. There’s a reason Borneo has the wild reputation it does, my first morning on my way to breakfast I spotted a cat toying with a snake before making it breakky for himself. The campus has no shortage reptiles from tortoises and little geckos to huge monitor lizards that climb trees and pluck birds from mid-flight, it’s pretty gnarly.  My favorite were the signs by the lake 50 meters from my doorstep reading “No swimming. Remember this is Borneo, there are Crocodiles”. I didn’t spot any, but I had hope, and it certainly kept the imagination running wild.

On top of all of that is the food, it was so good and so cheap. Sarawak is known for its cuisine and it certainly did not disappoint. A trip to town provides endless possibilities with excellent restaurants and all the regular fast food joints although as I feel is the only way in Asia, I mostly stuck to the sidewalk markets. On campus, you could score dinner for $2 with a local and a western café open nights and weekends. During the day there were several more with speciality Indian, vegetarian, western, many Malay places, a bakery and even a fresh juice bar I’d get a coconut from every day on my way to the lab. I’m always in the abacus labs in Bentley, and it was the same deal here with 24-hour computer labs and printing, it made study a piece of cake thus freeing up more time for new travels.

 

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Being so close to Australia has the added benefit of coming home for just $250 which is nothing after OS-HELP. This was very handy and I was able to easily fly back to Perth for a weekend to surprise my girlfriend for her birthday. Some of the others from Bentley had partners that would come up and meet them to travel around Asia, so it worked both ways.

My whole experience in Miri was overwhelmingly comfortable, it immerses you in an utterly different culture and allows you to step out of your comfort zone while always having the option of stepping back in. It’s a place that makes it possible to get lost on a remote jungle safari while only being a couple hours from home. You essentially get to regulate your journey to suit your own level of adventure every step of the way. Most unit coordinators are in Bentley and the course content is all exactly the same, so the transition process is entirely stress-free.  You can eat like a king, wear shorts and a T-shirt year round and shoot off to insane tropical islands and bucket list destinations for only a couple dollars. If you are struggling to find a point of difference on the resume, or just could do with a change up from grinding through a semester, I would certainly recommend a look at Curtin University’s Sarawak campus. Did I mention 6 months of no work? It’ll be the most relaxed 100 credits you’ll ever do.

John Lyall

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