The learning curve is verticle…

When I decided to pursue a graduate research degree I was already living and working in south east Asia. I found a lot of information and resources for international students arriving to study in Australian universities but not a lot on navigating the system in reverse, ie studying with an Australian university from a very distant location. My research had been conceived out of other projects we were already running over there, and I thought everything would be ok with the support I had and the networks I had developed in Malaysia. And it was kind of ok, albeit a significant challenge. Feeling like climbing a mountain without a safety harness, and little understanding of the unique challenges of studying in academic isolation in a location where you aren’t fluent in the language… My supervisors were, and are, amazing and supportive as much as they can be under the circumstances. The difficulty in accessing resources, seminars and workshops, training programs and the like, made the journey harder than it needed to be. It is almost 2020 after all. It’s the technology age. Yet a lot of the time workshops and seminars were not available online, and when they are the online component is not usually interactive, so you just sit and watch and hope some of your questions get asked by someone else. The impact of this for rural and remote students within Australia is also huge and finding ways to work around these barriers has become one of my side passions, a soapbox of sorts.

Conducting a research project in a foreign country is a unique and amazing challenge. There are the usual language barriers, adjusting to cultural differences, new and at times, unidentifiable foods and variations on social etiquette are just a few of the things to be navigated. Alongside that is the homesickness and longing for something familiar, or even just to watch a favourite tv show in a language that requires no thought or translation. The different weather and environment can be a challenge, but this was one of my favourite things. Warm and humid all year round, perfect.

The things that really help me survive in this situation, that I think would also apply for students in remote and rural locations, are the things that will see me thrive and excel through this challenge. One of the first things to know is that you may not find exactly “your academic kind of people” where you are located, and you have to reach out online and via social media to make connections wherever you can. I have made so many friends in Malaysia and found my people in places I never even knew existed, or that I never thought I would fit into. Importantly, I also joined forums, attended every workshop possible via zoom, asked the library for help via zoom (as well as the IT people), became active on twitter and other social media forums. I told everyone who would listen that I was studying in isolation, when I was struggling, and that I felt like I was out my depth sometimes. I also started a blog and sent that out into the universe to connect people with my work and goals. I am not a natural academic, I don’t really like reading and I have a very short concentration span. I work best when I am around others and learn by talking and doing… yet I find myself studying by distance from an overseas location, where I don’t fluently speak the language and don’t have any real connection with the academic community in Australia (although this is building)… A whole new language to learn in academia, a new and frightening bunch of academics to try and communicate with, and to have to learn to function almost completely in an online environment… and somehow I decided this was still an awesome plan. It is a work in process, and it is happening. I am loving most of this experience…

Published by sandijames

Graduate researcher at La Trobe Uni Australia, ethnography, traditional alcohol, Kadazandusun Sabah Malaysia,, alcohol policy, public health and medical anthropology. We also have established a Mindfulness Based Circus Arts pilot program in a rural school in Sabah. I also run ultramarathons in my spare time. My other research interests include injecting drug use, the war on drugs that is killing PWUD, and the decriminalisation or legalisation of drugs that are currently classed as illicit. I like to keep active and busy..

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