A Lasting Impression: North American Students Studying Abroad With AustraLearn Volunteer to Help Australian Environment

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U.S. college students studying abroad through AustraLearn spent one weekend of their semester volunteering in three environmentally unique areas of Australia.

Students Volunteer in Australia

Australia has been a wonderful place both for our students and to our students

One weekend this semester in three environmentally unique areas of Australia, U.S. college students studying abroad through AustraLearn pushed aside fears of the Australian bushlands in pursuit of a feeling.

It is the personal satisfaction that comes from serving others regardless of comfort or compensation.

Among those students was Carolyn Mueller, a 21-year-old junior from DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., who despite being covered in dirt, sweat and sand, got that satisfied feeling as she tore out invasive weeds March 14-16 in Anna Bay in Port Stephens, New South Wales.

With her participation in the conservation volunteer weekend through Conservation Volunteers Australia, Mueller became one of more than 1,600 AustraLearn students from the United States and Canada who since 2003 have provided 6,276 volunteer days and more than $1 million (AUD) in volunteer labor on behalf of the 25-year-old conservation program.

"I wanted a chance to learn more about conservation issues in Australia, as well as give back to my host nation," said Mueller, from St. Louis and returning to the United States in June after six months studying Australian history, literature, ceramics and Aboriginal studies at the University of Newcastle.

"I felt like this whole trip -- as amazing as it has been -- has been a bit selfish," Mueller said. "It's been all about me and what I want to do while studying abroad in Australia." Through Conservation Volunteers Australia, "I got a chance to do something for someone else."    

Mueller is one of a growing number of students asking for opportunities to give instead of just receive during time abroad in Australia, New Zealand, the South Pacific and elsewhere.

"Australia has been a wonderful place both for our students and to our students," says Shelia Houston, director of Australia and New Zealand operations for AustraLearn, a Westminster, Colo.-based company with an 18-year history of sending more than 18,000 students overseas. "We wanted to involve them in the communities and do something helpful and positive. It also gives the students the opportunity to come back in later years and see the impact of their work."

AustraLearn, a leading provider of study abroad programs in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific, in 2003 launched its program with Conservation Volunteers, which since 1982 has attracted and managed a force of volunteers in practical conservation projects for the betterment of Australia and New Zealand.

"At that time, AustraLearn was a leader in providing this type of experience for international education," said Joanne Davies, program manager for Conservation Volunteers. Since inception, "we have seen the AustraLearn program grow and improve each year."

AustraLearn students pay nothing extra to participate in the volunteer weekends and interest continues to grow, necessitating a significant annual commitment of about $85,000 in program costs, as well as some additional staffing costs.

"Most students rave about the program," Houston said, "though some have commented they've had to work harder than they'd expected. It's a program for people who are really prepared to get involved."

The impact of the AustraLearn study abroad volunteers, however, is real and quantifiable.

In 2007, AustraLearn participants provided 873 volunteer days equaling $139,680 (AUS) in volunteer labor, according to CVA. Project sites included Wingello State Forest, Werri Beach Lagoon, Commonderry Wetlands, Australian Walkabout Wildlife Park and Kangaroo Valley, where the students removed weeds, planted and maintained native trees, shrubs and grasses, constructed and repaired walking track and removed trash.

In exchange for sweat and sore muscles, AustraLearn students get to visit remote areas, learn about Australia's unique environmental challenges, and experience the dynamic of a group volunteer accomplishment.

"They interact with local people they ordinarily would not have the opportunity to meet," Houston said, "and they physically work hard and see their results, something many young people have yet to experience."

"An assumption can be made," she added, "these programs promote a greater global understanding and acceptance of other cultures."

As Mueller prepared to work at Anna Bay, she heard a comprehensive safety briefing from the Conservation Volunteers team leader who instructed the group to wear long sleeves, pants and hats for protection.

"It was definitely hard work," Mueller says, "and often very hot."

By day's end, Mueller's knees hurt after hours spent ripping out invasive morning glory, lantana and bitou bush, environmentally threatening weeds of national significance to the Australian government.

But payoffs included new friendships and stunning scenes of sand dunes and wildlife, including dolphins, kookaburras and lorikeets.

For Mueller, the effort drove home the ongoing conservation needs in Australia, especially the country's challenges with drought.

"I also think we made a difference in that we were working at a highly visible site," she said. "There were plenty of beachgoers passing us since it was a weekend. They may have seen us working and been inspired to do their own part to help the environment."

About AustraLearn / AsiaLearn / EuroLearn (Educational Programs of GlobaLinks):
AustraLearn / AsiaLearn / EuroLearn (Educational Programs of GlobaLinks) provides year-long, semester and other specialized study abroad programs to destinations across the globe. Based outside Denver in Westminster, Colo., AustraLearn / AsiaLearn / EuroLearn has sent more than 18,000 students from the United States and Canada to study abroad since its founding in 1990.

As the leading provider of study abroad programs to Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific, AustraLearn sends 3,000 students overseas annually to 35 universities. In 2007, AustraLearn launched sister organizations AsiaLearn, a provider of programs in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea, and EuroLearn, now developing programs in mainland Europe and the United Kingdom.
For more information, visit http://www.AustraLearn.org, http://www.AsiaLearn.org or http://www.EuroLearn.org.


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