My name is Maria Stadheim and I am an international student from Norway currently undertaking my degree at Griffith University’s Gold Coast Campus.
I am studying Mechanical Engineering with a minor in Biomedical Science, and will commence my final year in 2022.
My dream is to work with artificial organs, biomechanics or any mechanical engineering technology within the field of medicine. I am passionate about mixing creativity with science as well as utilizing engineering knowledge to solve medical and health issues.
I would love the chance to learn from and work with skilled engineers and experts within the field here in Australia after my graduation, if the opportunity arises. During these pandemic times, I think this topic is especially relevant and in need of further research.
I have lived and studied in Australia since October, 2017, when I decided to move to the Gold Coast by myself after travelling the country earlier that same year. I instantly fell in love with the friendly culture, the mild climate and the carefree people.
I loved how strangers talked to each other like they already knew one another, and the different lifestyle from what I am familiar with fascinated me. Living at the beach, learning to surf, riding scooters around the town, road tripping the beautiful coast and skating to uni was my everyday life while living in sunny Queensland.
Life in Queensland
Starting my engineering degree in 2019, I quickly met my friends Breezy, Daniel and Jason – all studying at Griffith too – who helped me integrate into Australian culture academically and culturally. As my Norwegian family is on the other side of the world, they quickly became my Australian family, and have been my largest support during my stay in Australia. Together with my fellow international student friend Liv, they helped me through ups and downs and they are what I missed the most while being stuck back at home in Norway.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and international travel restrictions, after returning home briefly I was stuck back at home in Norway for a year and a half, forcing me to undertake my Griffith classes online, with a time difference of nine hours. It was challenging and stressful to accept the new life situation I was dramatically put in. I moved back home with my parents in the small town I am from in Norway. None of my friends live there anymore, as they have moved to larger cities to study and work. My new life thus consisted of my parents and dogs as my only friends in near proximity, and uni classes at nighttime.
Studying online in Norway
‘The worst part was the social isolation that I experienced being so far away from the university and student life I belong to.’
My uni friends, belongings, work and university were all located on the other side of the world, and my longing to return to my Queensland life was hard to handle at times. The lack of control of the global situation, and knowing there was nothing I could do except wait for the world to find a solution, was hard to deal with. The transition back to my life in Norway had a strong impact on my mental health, and the first 8-9 months being back home was especially challenging – though in hindsight the personal growth I experienced was necessary.
I followed Australian newspapers, and hoped for good news every day until I realized I had to create a new life for myself. I came into contact with two Norwegian girls, Serine and Kate, who were studying at Griffith University and were also stuck in Norway. We quickly decided to meet up and plan to move somewhere together where we could create a similar lifestyle that we had been living and loving in Australia.
In March, 2021, the three of us moved to Malta and studied online from there together for half a year. It was amazing being surrounded by people in the same situation, belonging to the same university, and having the same longing and love for Australia. Today we are all finally back in Australia, and due to the unfortunate situation we shared together as international students being stuck abroad, we were able to uniquely help and support each other and build a strong friendship.
Studying online in Malta
During the last half of 2021, I was finishing my third year online and started giving up on the idea of Australia opening up that year or the first half of 2022, so I started making different plans for my upcoming last year of university. Personally for me, I decided that online studies were too challenging with the time difference, and too expensive to continue. So I decided that I would defer my last year and move to central America to learn Spanish, while the Australian borders were still kept closed.
I moved to Costa Rica in November, 2021, and stayed until the Australian borders opened up in mid December. It was inspiring being around students and workers from all over the world working online while travelling. This experience reminded me how much I value meeting people from different cultures and backgrounds, as I had highly enjoyed doing this while studying in Australia.
During my stay in Costa Rica, another international student friend of mine from Griffith University, Pawel, contacted me. He was also in the same situation being stuck in his home country of Poland, and wanted to reach out to someone in the same situation. He decided to come to Costa Rica and join my experience there, and after a month travelling together, as well as sharing the journey back into Australia, we have become close friends and roommates.
Visiting Costa Rica
When Australia finally announced their reopening in early December, I booked the first ticket I could find the next day, and started planning my arrival back into the country. A burden that had been underlying this entire time finally lifted. I could finally continue my life again, after all of this longing to get back – this was it!
‘The euphoria when I boarded the plane and landed on Australian ground is hard to explain.’
It was unbelievable that after all this time only dreaming of coming back, I was actually here again. I could finally let go of the underlying worry of trying to move on and integrate into another country, while knowing I still belonged to my university in Australia. I was one of the very first students to arrive back into Australia since the borders had closed, and I was met by eager journalists when I landed in Sydney early the same morning of the reopening day. I was interviewed by the Australian newspaper, which you can read here.
Emotional as I saw Australia from the plane window
Although I was happy to be home, the arrival has also been a confusing time for me. It has been hard to accept that in the same way as I was forced to move on while being overseas, the place and people naturally moved on without me while I was gone.
I had imagined and idealised my arrival for so long that I did not prepare myself for all of the changes and challenges coming with this experience. The first weeks were filled with emotional reunions with people that I once saw every day, and that I now had not seen in nearly two whole years. As I started hanging out with my old friends I realised how much I had missed them and how many events I have missed in their lives as a result of being gone.
The memories and nostalgia around every corner of the town were very overwhelming the first weeks and ironically, I started getting home sick, as the place no longer felt familiar. The life I was forced to build overseas had become my new life, and jumping back to my old life after all this time as a different person was a bittersweet feeling.
Back in Queensland, January 2022
I am so grateful for the friends I have found overseas, who share the same challenges and emotions as myself. I am also so thankful for my friends in Australia and how they have included me back into their lives again, and their overall support while I was abroad. All in all, I am happy that I decided to go home in June 2020, mainly due to all of the valuable time that I got to spend with my close friends and family back home in a troubled time. Even though the time I have spent overseas longing for my life in Australia has been mentally challenging, it has taught me so much about the world, myself and what I want in life.
Despite it all, I feel extremely lucky for the people that I have met, spent time with and befriended over the last years, as well as the special experiences I have shared with everyone. This crazy journey has given me so much more than what it could possibly take away, and so in the end I am just so grateful for my life and for everyone who is in it!
I hope my story might be relatable to other international students who have been in the same situation, and I hope that they feel less lonely that we all share the emotional changes and challenges of being an international student stuck in their home country during the pandemic.
All the best,