What I learned in 3 years away from home
This past week, I closed the book on one of the most enjoyable chapters of my life so far.
Having been born and raised in Sydney, I never expected to leave home until I had finished my university studies – but life often surprises us. (To readers from Europe and North America this may seem odd – in Australia, it’s rare for people to move for university if they live in a major city)
Although I did well to finish year 12, I didn’t receive any offers in my chosen field within my home state – my best opportunities were all interstate offers.
After much consideration and prayer, I settled on Melbourne as my chosen destination for the next phase of my education.
At 18, I’d only been to Melbourne once before in my life (I was 8 then) and the longest I’d ever spent away from my family was a week long music camp in year 11. With barely a month between decision time and the beginning of the semester, I was learning on the run.
I’m now 21, officially a graduate of The University of Melbourne and about to start postgraduate studies at The University of Sydney next year. As for my three years away, I don’t treat them as merely a stepping stone or a means to an end. Rather, it’s the experiences I’ve picked up along the way that make the time valuable. (Yeah I know, it’s cheesy but it’s very true in my eyes).
About a year ago, a friend of mine asked me this (loosely paraphrased):
“Think about the people you hang out with (or have hung out with in the past). Do they like hanging out with you because they’re interested in you, or do they hang out with you just because you’re there?”A friend of mine in 2018
As a student in high school, I believed that the friends I made there would be the friends I held onto for life (we effectively grew up together, and having been at a selective school, we were all a little different to the wider community).
In my first year away, I tried desperately to sustain contact with my closest friends from school. We arranged dinners, times to meet and play tennis, times to go and watch movies, and so on. But in hindsight, I’ve realised that I’ve only really kept in contact with 10-15 friends from that season of my life. Of these, while I feel like there are 2-3 I’ll end up keeping for life (for reasons I’ll discuss further down), I feel a growing distance with some of them as we go down different paths.
That’d probably one of the biggest lessons I’ve taken from the last three years.
In much the same vein, one of my biggest fears when starting in Melbourne was meeting new people and rooting myself into a new community. Until then, I was petrified of even asking help from a retail assistant in a supermarket or department store – I’d rehearse what I wanted to say and my heart rate would steadily increase as I approached them.
I didn’t know too many people upon starting in Melbourne – there were a few others from my school who made the transition but I wasn’t particularly close with them.
I remember my first week or two of classes – barely knowing anyone, and then coming back to my little studio apartment and surfing the internet or calling my family. There was little else to do, and I felt very much alone in a new city.
That’s not the case anymore – I’ve just had to undergo a series of heart-wrenching goodbyes to friends I know I’ll keep for life.
I’ve found that making friends doesn’t require extensive amounts of effort – rather, simply being around people who share your interests and participate in similar activities will naturally cause strong friendships to form.
I will say though that the same issue I found with my school friends remains with my friends from university – I’m closer to some than others and there are only a select few I can see sticking around with me for life.
Moving back home to study in Sydney will be my second major change in the last three years – but just because my moves have been somewhat frequent (in comparison to the rest of my fairly constant life), that doesn’t make adapting any easier. There’s still an outpouring of emotion (I shed a few tears when checking out of my apartment for the last time earlier this week) but I feel like having to deal with monumental change has strengthened me emotionally.
As a Christian, one thing that has helped me immensely is believing that God brings people into my life at a particular time for a particular purpose. They might stay in touch, but they might not – it’s all part of a greater Plan.
This mindset has helped me move on from losing past friendships and has allowed me to look forward to the friendships I will make in the future.
I think this frame of mind also helps stay positive and optimistic about the future – despite the uncertainty of moving to a new university and a new course (with all that that entails – a commute, new lecturers, tutors, admin staff, etc.), I can be sure that I will make connections with people that matter for the coming stage of my life.
Understanding your identity
A key difference between living at home and moving out is that when living alone, you’re largely free from any external influences (both family and friends would fit under this category). This is incredibly important, because it means you’re free to do, say, think and believe whatever you want to. It allows you to test different hobbies, activities and ideas for yourself and help carve out your own niche in the world in which you find yourself.
For me, I found living by myself refreshing because I didn’t have to be concerned about what my old friends thought – they weren’t around so I was able to try new things and work out my place in a new environment.
I think this aspect of my experience exemplifies what I mentioned earlier about friends – as I engaged with new activities and interests, I found myself surrounded by people who participated and enjoyed the same things I did.
Some readers may be alarmed: “You’re saying young people can do whatever they want under these circumstances? What if they go totally off the rails?”
Granted, my experience isn’t going to apply to everyone – I tend to be fairly overcautious when doing things so I tend not to get into too much trouble (on the flipside, I may have missed out on doing certain things due to my overcautious nature; one such thing would be catching only ONE game of AFL during my three years in Melbourne!).
However, I do think most young people would benefit from having this sort of freedom – even if they make mistakes, it’s important to remember that we only learn through mistakes.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
In much the same vein as the previous section, the new-found autonomy I had when I was all alone helped teach me how to make good decisions with minimal external advice. Before I go on, I will say that advice is essential to making any good decision, as per Proverbs 11:14:
“Where there is no guidance the people fall, But in abundance of counselors there is victory.”Proverbs 11:14 [NASB]
However, much of the time, when we are in the real world, we don’t have the time or ability to consult others for advice when trying to make decisions – as such, it’s important we train ourselves to make good decisions independently.
Why is university/college life a good place to start?
The best part about starting this while still a student is that the decisions you make are not inconsequential, nor are they absolutely paradigm-altering – their importance lies somewhere in between (and I’d argue mostly towards the less serious end of the spectrum). I think this middle ground is perfect for the purposes of training.
Even though these decisions start small (e.g. Should I buy this? Should I go to this party? Should I eat out tonight?), you’re eventually making decisions on which classes to take, which courses to apply for, which dates to say yes and no to and so on. I’d wager that five to ten years down the track, the independence I’ve had in decision making will make me more confident and assertive when it comes to more life altering decisions.
This may be a sore point with some – I’m not saying that everyone needs to leave home to learn how to make decisions confidently and independently. Rather, I think for someone like me, who grew up in an extremely sheltered environment, I benefited greatly from having this exposure early – it means that down the track, I’m not going to be fumbling around with real-life trial and error. I hope I’ll be at a point where I can trust my judgement.
Enjoying yourself without breaking the bank
Living a student’s lifestyle has taught me the art of stretching a dollar to its maximum extent I’m mainly talking about food here (and this is by no means restricted to university-age students).
As a student, food is probably the biggest expense I had (besides rent of course, but that’s fixed by contract). While living off a diet of two-minute noodles and instant coffee is affordable, it’s not healthy at all, nor is it enjoyable beyond the first week. On the flipside, eating out in trendy brunch cafes regularly isn’t going to be kind to your bank account. There’s a balance that needs to be struck between the two.
Making your own food
The secret in all this is that preparing your own meals doesn’t have to be expensive, difficult or time-consuming. If you don’t believe me, just search for ‘easy student recipes’ or something similar online and see what you find!
One of my favourites is sandwiches or crackers with smoked salmon, cream cheese (or cottage cheese) topped off with chopped vegetables and herbs or salad leaves. I find the ingredients tend to last me three to four meals.
Another favourite is preparing a couscous salad to eat with canned tuna. Couscous is incredibly easy to prepare (just add boiling water!) and the remainder of the recipe involves mixing it with the tuna and some chopped vegetables. I ate this (and other salads) with a homemade dressing made from balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar, olive oil, honey and dijon mustard.
(If you’d like the recipe to my dressing let me know and I’ll make a post on it)
What about hot food?
Like cold food, hot food can either be ridiculously simple or ridiculously complicated to prepare.
One of the first recipes my mother taught me to cook was a chicken curry. The recipe is literally this:
- Add chicken into a saucepan with a tablespoon of coriander powder, a tablespoon of turmeric powder and a tablespoon of paprika powder.
- Add water until the chicken is covered.
- Bring to boil, stirring so that the spices are well mixed into the mixture.
- Boil until the chicken is well cooked
It takes all of 15 minutes from pot to plate, and because there isn’t much to do, you can cook rice and prepare vegetables while the curry is cooking.
And there we have it – a simple student’s meal.
Other hot food recipes that are simple to prepare include stir fry or even a simple pasta. Generally, there’s enough such that you’ll be able to last a few days with what you prepare. You’ll probably only need to cook 2 days per week, and there’ll be plenty of variety if you try different recipes every now and then.
Cooking to save money by no means precludes you from eating out, but do be wise about what you splurge on. I recommend getting an app like EatClub (currently available in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and NYC) to alert you of great deals at good restaurants. Some deals are incredibly attractive (for example, my friends and I ate at a Mexican restaurant offering 50% off through EatClub – a fantastic Mexican meal was ours for less than $20!).
While I’ve focused very much on student life and budgeting in this section, please do note that these principles are applicable far beyond university. I’m incredibly grateful I learned these lessons early, because I’m sure they’ll serve me well down the track!
The importance of discipline
One of my biggest fears when starting out alone was being able to wake up for class without having my parents around. I’ve always been a very, very heavy sleeper – setting alarms was usually futile because I’d just sleep through them. Clearly, there was a problem here.
The answer was setting guidelines around which to structure my days. These weren’t revolutionary – something as simple as going to bed before 12 the night before an 8am class, or making sure to print lecture notes out in advance helped me enormously.
I still wanted to learn how to use alarm clocks – I knew that there would be nights where I would need to cut sleep down to 5 or 6 hours in order to do everything I needed to do for the day. As such, I persisted in setting alarms until I eventually began to wake to them.
It could be that being on your own subconsciously flicks a switch that moulds you to become more disciplined and self-sufficient (I’ve heard others say this as well). Regardless, this is something I think I picked up relatively easily by living away from home.
Developing coping strategies
One of the scarier things about starting off away from home is that you’re far removed from your support network. This can be quite intimidating – reassurance and advice is a detached phone call and nearly 900km away.
Of course, I did eventually build a support network in Melbourne over my three years. However, even close friends aren’t comparable to the kind of support family can provide. As such, it was important that I developed adequate coping strategies since I wasn’t able to access family help all the time.
Some key ones included picking up running again (I had largely stopped after year 10 to focus on my HSC), listening to music, reading widely (largely spiritual and philosophical texts) and spending time on YouTube (again, largely spiritual and philosophical content). These helped me cope, and have arguably made me a more well-rounded person in the process.
If I could sum up this piece, and moreover my three years in Melbourne, I would describe it as a ‘growing up’ experience. It was during this three-year period that I took a flight alone for the first time, learned to cook for myself, learned to manage time and learned to stay disciplined. I grew leaps and bounds as a person, becoming far more mature and insightful, with deeper and more meaningful interests.
All in all, it’s probably been the best three years of my life and I wouldn’t trade it. I’d highly recommend anyone considering leaving home for university to take the next step and broaden their horizons.