By Jamie Gnazzo ’13
Just a week into her study abroad semester at the University of Wollongong in Australia this spring, Krista McGuire ’16 woke to a high-pitched hissing and screeching coming from her open dorm window. Terrified, McGuire hid in the corner of her room, waiting out the noise in darkness. Although she didn’t know it at the time, McGuire had just met Paddy the Possum.
The creature that entered McGuire’s dorm room that night was an Australian brushtail possum – known by its cute, inquisitive face contrasted with its tendency to utter almost demon-like sounds. It became a regular visitor to the campus residence, with McGuire eventually befriending it and naming the possum Paddy. While initially alarmed by Paddy’s presence, McGuire had approached her study abroad experience fully anticipating run-ins with the local wildlife.
“I honestly almost expected every day to be like an episode of ‘The Crocodile Hunter,’” McGuire laughs. “I expected there to be kangaroos everywhere, hordes of giant spiders, snakes – lots of things that could kill me.”
But wildlife and her own assumptions of Australia aside, what McGuire didn’t expect to encounter was a genuine lack of knowledge regarding African-Americans and stereotypes or phrases that carry negative connotations in the United States. “As an African-American student in Australia, I had this odd experience of being a ‘super minority.’ Not only was I American, but I was African-American,” McGuire says. “More than once people informed me I was the first African-American they had ever met.”
After several interactions with her Australian classmates in which race played a key factor – students assumed McGuire could rap, twerk, braid hair, run fast – what hit home the hardest for McGuire was the casual use of the n-word around the dorm, leading her to express long pent-up feelings of hurt and frustration in a blog post that eventually circulated throughout the dorm and to some of her professors and college administrators.
McGuire’s words launched an important discussion among her classmates about the differences between Australian and American education and perspectives. “Basically, what I didn’t realize was that Aussies aren’t taught extensive American history. I asked [a fellow dorm resident] if he knew about the Civil Rights Movement. He didn’t. I asked if he knew about Mike Brown and Walter Scott and Freddie Gray. He didn’t,” McGuire says. “It was then that I realized the only real exposure to African-Americans that most Aussies had was through the media, through music and television.”
Once those channels of communication and understanding were opened, McGuire says she was no longer upset by the comments of her classmates. “I understood that there was no harm intended, and it truly stemmed from ignorance. I started to see these occurrences as teaching moments.”
McGuire’s study abroad experience illustrates the importance of diversity in all forms – race, ethnicity, socio-economics, gender – in the realm of international education.
“At UNC-Chapel Hill, we’ve recently launched an initiative to open access to global education to students from all backgrounds,” says Ron Strauss, executive vice provost and chief international officer. “Our students, like our country, are incredibly diverse. It’s important to us to not only increase access to study abroad, we also want to make sure that we’re not contributing to the perception that the U.S. is a homogenous nation.”
McGuire’s presence wasn’t only providing teaching moments during her time in Australia—she also learned a great deal. She explains that study abroad made her more independent, introduced her to a cherished group of new Australian friends and strengthened her relationship with God.
“Perhaps the most important thing I learned was that people can be extremely different, but people are also very much the same. From a student perspective, we can all get stressed about finals. We all love free food. We all enjoy free t-shirts. In general, we all understand what it feels to be sad, offended, alone or excited, loved and affirmed,” McGuire says. “Whether chatting with someone on the plane, in class in Wollongong, or while hostel hopping in New Zealand, remembering these fundamental things made it easy to connect with people.”
Krista McGuire is majoring in media and journalism in UNC School of Media and Journalism.