By Tara Zubrinich
I imagine that for most people, the first day of University is an exciting experience and somewhat a rite of passage into the adult world, but for me it was a nerve-wracking affair. You see, I wasn’t like 80 per cent of the people in my course, who had just finished year 12 and were ready to take on the world. Instead, I was a 27-year-old single mum who had applied to uni because I was sick of my job and was looking for a better future. So when I walked into the room for the first day of orientation, naturally I headed straight for the other mature-aged students where we huddled together for safety. However, little did I know that by the third day I would be sitting in a kayak, rowing down the Onkaparinga river and forging a friendship that would go on to change my life.
I had been paired with a 17-year-old, fresh-out-of-high school girl who was ready to see the world. After listening to one of the many volunteer groups that visit universities looking for keen students, we found ourselves planning a trip to Fiji. There, we would stay in a village and help build essentials, like water tanks for a school, which we would also liven up with some brightly-coloured paint.
It took a lot for me to leave my children behind for two weeks, but with Julia by my side and the promise of an adventure, I boarded the plane for my trip. It was my first overseas trip without my parents. As we walked through the terminal gates, we were greeted by balmy air and the sound of locals singing; it was a sensory overload. Desperate to explore before the rest of our tour group arrived, we grabbed a local taxi and headed straight for the famous wharf area where we strolled around, taking in the sights. By the time the others arrived at the hotel, we felt comfortable in our surroundings and enjoyed telling them what the area looked like.
We boarded the bus the next morning, not really knowing what to expect, and had soon arrived at a village. We were instantly welcomed with the sounds of people calling out “bula” and children gathering to catch a glimpse of the 40 strangers who were coming to stay. The next week proved to be both rewarding and challenging. I hadn’t lived with my parents for seven years, so I found having to tell host-parents where I was going a little strange. I also missed my boys terribly. However, I had a newfound confidence and sense of pride that came from the work I was doing and the stories I would be able to take home.
The biggest lesson of all came from a late afternoon, one-on-one talk with the kindergarten teacher, from which I learnt that I had taken so many little things for granted and had overlooked the simple pleasures in life. That conversation stayed with me long after I returned home and I am pleased to say it has lead me on a project that will see me return to the village in a few weeks’ time, but that’s another story.
The second week of my trip was an entirely different adventure. I like to think of it as the week I realised I wanted to see the world. Cyclone aside, I got to ride on a tinnie in the pouring rain, hire a boat, and snorkel among hundreds of fish. I swam inside the most amazing caves that were reached by a tunnel, two metres underwater. But by far, the best experience came when I got to hold a baby hawksbill turtle. In that moment I got to feel what it was like to tick something off your bucket list.
Getting on the plane home a few days later, I was sad to leave a place that had given me so much empowerment, yet I was so excited to have found the travel bug within me. Would I have gone to Fiji if I hadn’t been paired with Julia that day? I don’t know, but I do know that university isn’t about how old you are when you start; it’s about making the most of the opportunities presented to you and being willing to step outside of your comfort zone. As the Yo Gabba Gabba saying goes: “Try it, you might like it”.