Lars and Labolina from Sweden – 1080 days of friendship, adventures, and achievements studying at USC!

This is Labolina and Lars’ adventure, a story about two people from Dalarna, Sweden and how we met by chance at University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) in Queensland, Australia.

In 2014 we were two strangers, but we both had a spontaneous idea to study overseas, and since we wanted to begin as soon as possible we both enlisted the help of Kilroy Education. Their friendly and professional staff helped us get ready for the adventure, not knowing that our paths would cross only a few weeks later, and that this meeting would develop into a great friendship which in turn would foster academic and professional success.

Labolina

Back in 2014 we left two different worlds behind. I was busy completing high school when my dad one night mentioned that he knew someone who had studied overseas on the Sunshine Coast, in Australia.  All I thought I knew about Australia at the time was that Sydney was the capital (I was wrong), and that everyone spoke like the crocodile hunter, Steve Irwin (I was not completely wrong about that). So, the thought of moving to the other side of the world, to a country that I knew almost nothing about, seemed both thrillingly challenging and completely out of my comfort zone. As I have always been interested in learning how the human body works, I applied to study a Bachelor of Biomedical Science. Later in my degree I fell in love with Microbiology, learning about microorganisms, infectious diseases and what we can do to treat them. Throughout my degree, I had the opportunity to participate in theoretical lessons, practical laboratory experiments, and two special research projects, focusing on the things I wanted to learn more about. These factors definitely contributed to my learning experience, if there was something I would improve with the Microbiology program it would be the amount of laboratory time!

In contrast, Lars decided to leave his marketing career for a more person-centred profession, and since Lars was eager to explore other cultures, he knew his journey would begin overseas. Once Kilroy helped Lars find the Bachelor of Counselling program at USC, he was hooked. While Lars did not mind learning about theories, I could tell his favourite part of his degree was the many practical exercises such as demonstrating acquired counselling skills. Lars, himself, once told me that his favourite aspect of his degree was the balanced course structure, which is divided between theoretical discussions, practical exercises, and personal reflections.

Although, how do you gently tell your friends and family that you are moving overseas for at least three years? I remember Lars telling me he was out walking with his brother one day, when he out of nowhere said “Bro, you know the expression ‘I might have a screw loose?’, well I think my bolts are gone, the screws are nowhere to be found, and the whole structure is about to fall apart… I have decided to move to the Sunshine Coast for four years!”. I am not sure, but there might be some truth in Lars’ comment, as it was definitely a thrilling time, and it was at times difficult to comprehend what my university application would actually mean.

Lars

In the first half of July 2014 we both began our separate journeys to Australia, interestingly enough we both chose to travel the 24+ hour journey with Emirates Airline. I remember Labolina telling me once that when she got into her waiting cab at Brisbane Airport around midnight, she clearly thought her driver sounded like Hugh Jackman. She thought that her knowledge about Australia was astonishing. I have never met any Hugh Jackman sound-a-likes, but when I arrived I was well aware of the ‘dangerous threat’ from Drop Bears!

Before we knew it, we were Bachelor students, enrolled in our separate courses at USC, which is a university far, far away from home. To say that the following three years was an adventure would be an understatement, particularly for me. Not only because I was moving overseas, but also because I, as a person with sight impairment, was changing the familiarity of Sweden for an area, culture, and environment I could not see. I remember Labolina and I talking about how nerve wracking the first few weeks were, as we suddenly were sharing a lecture theatre with a few hundred other students. The thing that made us most nervous though, was not knowing if we could actually overcome the challenges that laid ahead.

Labolina

I mean, moving across the world, doing a university degree in another language, is a pretty big challenge to take on, right? What we loved about USC though, was that it often felt like a tight-knit community. Throughout our degrees, whenever we had questions or wanted advice from teachers, they would be there to answer them. Whenever we wanted to learn more, our teachers would provide us with the opportunity to do so, and whenever we struggled to get our words across because of the language-barrier, our classmates would patiently listen and help. Some of my teachers well and truly acted as my mentors, and I loved being able to sit down over a coffee and discuss the world of microbiology with them.

I think it is rare to find a university with the same person-centred philosophy as USC. For example, USC always had an individualistic approach to Lars’ learning experience. This was evident in his first meeting with Disability Services, in which Matt (Disability Advisor) sat down and calmly asked “Lars, what help do you need from us?”. This was the start of a positive, solution-focused cooperation between the university and Lars, which made it possible for him to study on the same terms as everyone else.

While we both agree on that it was a challenge to learn how to speak and write academically in English, we were never too worried as we would have had to learn the same thing in Swedish. This is because the ‘academic language’ is ‘a bit special’, so simply knowing a language is no guarantee that you will have it easy academically. Surprisingly, it only took a couple of weeks before we could walk into a lecture theatre with the feeling: “Hey, this feels natural”.

Lars

In my experience, it was not just the university that had a person-centred and supportive attitude, but also organisations such as Guide Dogs Queensland. They have, among other things, helped me learn how to navigate the unfamiliar areas of the Sunshine Coast using busses and trains. This have contributed to my ability to live independently, and have allowed me to gather knowledge and experiences on my own terms. I was therefore able to travel around, meet new people, and try some of Australia’s excellent breakfasts! While most of the people I have met have been warm and friendly, Australia’s Mermaids had a stone-cold manor, no matter which ‘pick-up lines’ I tried (chuckles).

However, thankfully Labolina was a more warm-hearted person, with whom I regularly met up with for a traditional Swedish Fika. Fika is deeply embedded in Swedish culture, and can be described as taking a break from the daily stresses in life. This short break allows people to appreciate the good things in life, either alone, or with company, and is usually enjoyed with a tea/coffee and something small to eat. The fact that we Swedes have a special word for this should be an indication of how important this lifestyle is.

Labolina and I enjoyed our first Fika within the first few weeks of our stay in Australia. This quickly became a tradition, and usually we met up once a week to discuss the ups and downs during each semester. We agree that this break from the university life made the whole experience less scary, since we had a familiar routine that reminded us of home. We both took on our academics as the biggest challenge of them all, so even though we were studying completely different degrees we could cheer each other on as we worked our hardest to improve with each semester.

This could not only be seen in our steadily increasing grade point averages, but also in the successes we had outside of our studies. For instance, I remember a modest Labolina pondering whether or not to apply for an esteemed Undergraduate research summer program at Monash University in Melbourne. With the support of her friends, family, and teachers Labolina submitted her application, and just a few months later she arrived at the Monash Research Laboratory. One of my own great accomplishments was my invitation to ‘The Golden Key International Honour Society’, which is reserved for the top 15 percent of students. Fuelled by this success I also managed to secure a position in the USC Golden Key Executive Team, and was later that year awarded the prestigious Golden Key Undergraduate Achievement Scholarship.

While USC is a smaller university, we believe that it was USCs person-centred and friendly atmosphere that allowed us to grow and flourish. We think this inclusive and flexible environment is difficult to find at other universities, so if you are looking for a university where you are a person and not a number, we would recommend University of the Sunshine Coast.

Final words

These past three years have been an incredible journey for us both, and thinking back on the Mooloolaba coast line is starting to feel like a long-lost dream already. We have had our own paths and challenges, but our friendship have been there to help us forward. It is, however, time for Labolina’s journey to change, as she is now starting her Master’s degree in Infectious Biology at Uppsala University. Lars will stay at USC to finish the last year of his counselling degree, before it is time for him to change his focus towards his passion, namely the field of sex and disability. Even though half a world separates us now, we will definitely stay in contact, and whenever the opportunity presents itself, we will reunite over a traditional Swedish Fika!

Written by Lars Karlström and Labolina Spång

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