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Westminster Down Under

Westminster Down Under

By Anne Macdonald

In May of this year, 38 students and six faculty members packed their bags, left their textbooks behind, loaded up with sunscreen, and readied themselves for a different kind of education--a sojourn in Australia.

From crocodiles (but no Dundee) to kangaroos to koala bears, from the Sydney Opera House to Bondi Beach and Surfers Paradise, to the sites where the British convicts first settled in Australia in the 18th century--the students drank in the experience and learned in a way that no textbook could teach them.

When music lover Amanda O'Driscoll ('02) first saw the large, white wings of the Sydney Opera House rising from Harbor Bay, it was a headying experience. "I can't believe it," she said. "I have seen this in magazines, and now I'm here."

She took pictures of the roof, long shots, and close-up detailed shots. She listened to the fascinating history--and then --she did it: "I touched the tiles. I touched the tiles," she said.

The tiles on the roof were designed to reflect the colors of the harbor. So, when the sun sets, the roof is pink. "I still can't believe I was there--right next to the opera house-- seeing the inside--hearing about the architectural wonder of the place I had gazed at longingly in magazines. I still look at my pictures with absolute amazement," she added.

Biology major Corianne Baird ('04) saw things she had only seen in textbooks, like the two egg-laying mammals that live only in Australia: the echidna (a horned, spiny anteater) and the platypus.

But, along with the sightseeing, the beaches, and the encounters with "laidback" Australians who taught them to say "g'day" (and who do not drink Fosters), students had a more sobering experience when they met aboriginal people.

Both O'Driscoll and Maxwell Powell ('05) compared the cultural genocide and loss of land that the Aborigines suffered to the plight of Native Americans. Neither could understand how they hadn't heard anything about the Aborigines before preparing for the Australia trip. "We had heard about the Jews and World War II, but we had not heard anything about this genocide," said O'Driscoll. She then found herself asking the question many have asked after hearing of such events: "How is it possible? How is it humanly possible that someone could do this?"

"Although we see this as wrong, I understand that the original intent of the government was to give the Aborigines a better chance at life," said Powell. "The question now is how to right the wrong," he said.

After meeting up with Australian activists, O'Driscoll learned of National Sorry Day. On that day, people come out in droves and march across the Harbor Bridge in Sydney carrying "sorry" signs. "We learned that this year there were something like 250,000 marching," said O'Driscoll. "That in itself says a lot about Australians," she said.

O'Driscoll went on to explain that the marchers were expressing their sorrow because the Australian government will not apologize for taking Aboriginal children away from their families and raising the children in white culture--a practice which existed until the 1970s.

Powell spoke of an Aboriginal woman who had been taken from her family and raised in white culture. She did not find her biological parents until she was in her 30s. "It's a huge issue down there," he said.

"Many of the Aborigines search for their parents not only to regain their cultural heritage but also to know their family history so they understand any health risks," said nursing student O'Driscoll.

A slideshow of where Aboriginal people live introduced the students to the poverty of these people. "All the homes were shanties," said Powell, who wanted to visit one of the reserves where Aboriginal people live. He explained such a visit required government clearance in advance--"but maybe next time," he said.

When students visited a hospital, they learned not only about Australian healthcare, but also about Aboriginal culture. "When an Aboriginal person dies, they have to have their head facing north. Only certain people can touch the body. The nurses cannot touch the body because Aboriginal people believe that disrupts the spirit's journey to, I believe they called it, dreamland," said O'Driscoll.

Experiencing another culture first hand was what O'Driscoll considered the most valuable education. "Understanding other cultures has a lot to do with how I care for somebody," said O'Driscoll. "Nurses are teachers. They teach their clients a great deal throughout their stay in the hospital and upon discharge. It is really important to be sensitive to other cultures. For example, the Aborigines consider eye contact offensive. I believe it is something to do with interfering with the spirit," she said.

But who could go to Australia and leave without visiting the Great Barrier Reef? Certainly not Powell. He stayed after the course and had a different kind of adventure, scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef. He marveled at the coral with every color imaginable. "I saw a manta ray that was probably a good 10 feet in size, and I got to touch it as it swam by," he said.

In reflecting what exposure to other cultures meant to him, Powell describes himself during his teen years as a California beach bum. "I saw my hometown as the center of the universe, and I never gave a thought to other cultures," he said. He began his travels when he joined the Navy and, since that time, has not missed any opportunity to see other countries and experience their cultures. "When you travel you learn that you are just a small part of the bigger workings in the world, and that changed me a lot," he said.

O'Driscoll describes her first trip outside the United States as breathtaking. "I still look at my pictures practically on a daily basis. I am still in disbelief that I was actually there.

Such memories. As they might say down under--'They're keepers.'"