As I’m now getting into week 4 of classes (it’s absolutely incredible how fast time is flying!), I thought now would be a great time to talk about uni life here in Sydney and how it compares to Richmond. A quick aside: the word “uni”! Australians are all about abbreviations, as seen in this video we watched at orientation at USYD. And yes, it’s USYD — I haven’t heard students use the full name of “University of Sydney,” just USYD.
Thanks to a particularly stressful junior year and the maximum number of AP credits, I’ve just about finished my major, minor, and general education requirements at Richmond. This meant I got to select any classes I thought seemed interesting (and had good class times!) to take in Australia. Like Richmond, the normal course load is four classes. My four are introductory macroeconomics, introduction to computer programming, synthetic medicinal chemistry, and a course on Australian political history and ideas of nationhood.
Every class here has two components: a lecture and either a tutorial or a practical. Lectures are held in enormous lecture halls and consist of the instructor presenting on material for either an hour twice a week or two hours once a week. At first, the size of lectures was completely overwhelming — the largest class I’ve ever had at Richmond was about 35 students. I walked into my upper level chemistry class on the first day in awe at the hall with about 100 students, and commented on it to the girl next to me. She gave me a weird look and said, “Really? This is about a quarter of the normal lecture size.” Over the past few weeks, I’ve gotten more used to these large classes. It’s a lot more intimidating to ask a question in a lecture here than it is in the intimate classrooms at Richmond, but questions are not discouraged by any means. Lectures here are also recorded, so if I ever felt like I missed something in lecture, I can always go on Blackboard and re-watch the lecture.
The other parts of classes are probably more familiar to Richmond students. Tutorials (“tutes”) are once a week and essentially discussion groups with a graduate student and about 20 fellow students. The small size, mandatory attendance, and personalized attention remind me a lot of Richmond classes. Practicals (“pracs”) are the equivalent to tutes for more scientific classes like my computer science or chemistry units, and are just like labs at Richmond.
The last major difference between coursework here and in America is the number of assignments. For example, there’s only one assessment in my chemistry course — the final exam, which is worth two-thirds of the grade (“mark”). The other third of the mark comes from three labs in the practical. This means there’s little incentive to learn the material throughout the semester, compared to Richmond, where I typically have three tests during the semester in addition to the final and other assignments like homework. The responsibility for planning and learning is put directly in the hands of the students.
Getting away from academics, probably the biggest difference between uni life in Sydney and college in the States is the social life. Most students at USYD commute from home, sometimes up to three hours roundtrip, instead of living on-campus like at Richmond. This means after classes are over for the day, the campus can seem deserted. An Australian I met in my chem prac told me that his favorite parts of his exchange spent at the University of North Carolina were the school spirit and college sports, two things that are distinctly lacking in Australian universities due to the commuter atmosphere. The “Sydney University” sweatshirts embody that — they’re mostly worn by international students, not Australians. Yes, I did get one, and I wear it proudly. No shame.
To integrate myself more into the campus life that does exist, I’ve joined a few societies, which are the equivalent to our clubs. I played quidditch my first two years at Richmond, so I decided to join the Quidditch Society here at USYD. This is turning out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made since coming to Sydney. Being part of a team gives you an instant group of friends (or mates as they’re called here!) and also opportunities to travel — for example, in a few weeks I’m going to the Australian capital, Canberra, for a tournament. Every week I look forward to the practices and the classic Aussie tradition of going to the pub afterwards with my mates, for a few drinks, dinner, trivia, and card games.
While university in Australia is definitely different to college in the US, it doesn’t mean that it’s bad. I’ve really enjoyed stepping out of my comfort zone and adapting to a different sort of university experience. The independence here can be overwhelming – from the anonymity of lectures, the lack of incentive to study throughout the semester, to the ability to avoid interacting on campus. So far, I’ve tried avoid the common pitfalls and keep up with my studies. We’ll see how successful I am as the first assessments come due! Next week I have a five page paper for my history class due… as a chemistry major who hasn’t taken a true writing-intensive course besides French since FYS, I’m a little nervous. But challenging myself is exactly what I came to Australia for, so I think I’m up for the task.