Editor’s note: Kennedy Cooper, a high school student at North Haven Community School, received the first Geiger Scholarship through the Island Institute, which helped pay for her to study abroad. The Gieger Scholarship supports middle and high school students participating in enrichment programs, including travel abroad and summer experiences. 

By the end of my sophomore year in high school, I knew I wanted something different. I knew I needed a change from every day island life; everything was becoming boring—the same badly paved roads, the same people (sometimes bitter and stubborn), but most of all, the same judgments and rumors thrown around like confetti on New Year’s Eve.

I decided I wanted to get away, and try something new. After an entire summer of applications, recommendation letters, medical forms and wondering, “Will I even get accepted after all this?” I received an email from the head of admissions at CIEE (Council on International Educational Exchange), an international study abroad program, told I had a flight booked for the following January; I was in.

And so began the story of the girl who had never even taken the ferry alone, who boarded a plane and flew half way across the world by herself.

When I arrived in Australia, I stayed in Sydney for three days for orientation to get adjusted and learn more about the culture, before I was thrown into it. Here, I met kids who had the same interest as me, from all over the world. Argentina, Italy, Canada, Finland; name a country, and it was represented.

The three days included seminars on water safety, shark safety, common courtesy in Australia, and a trip into the city. Although I enjoyed the orientation, I had never been happier that it was over, and the only language I would be hearing again for a long time was English (even if it was spoken with a heavy Australian accent).

The next day I met my host family, the people with whom I would stay for the next four months. My host family was so giving; whenever I needed anything, from snacks to advice, they were there.

I started in my new school a few days after I arrived at my new home. I attended Kiama High, in Kiama, New South Wales, just a few hours’ drive south from Sydney. There were approximately 1,100 kids in grades 9-12. There are approximately 17 kids at North Haven High, which became my tag—”the American girl with 17 kids in her school.”

I got to take classes that actually interested me, not just what was offered. I chose classes like Society and Culture, where I focused my interest onto a topic I proposed, studying the psychology of why people are attracted to each other. Another one of my favorite classes was Earth and Environmental Science, where my class successfully made rocks melt.

On weekends and after school I liked to hang out with friends at the beach, or at various small parties. Often, I could be found at a local fish ‘n chip shop—best food I’ve ever had!

I also met a wonderful man, a family friend of my host family, who took me four-wheel driving. Being from Maine, I assumed we would be driving ATVs. I was wrong. These guys drive trucks up mountains. It was one of the best things I ever did while I was abroad, and something I will definitely never forget.

As my time began winding down in Australia, I started to reflect on everything that I had done. I was such a shy girl before I went to Australia, I never thought I would do something like this, but after doing it, I’m so glad I did. I met so many new people who had such a strong impact on my life, and who taught me more than I could ever learn in a classroom.

I also gained a new appreciation for home; it’s never as bad as it might feel at times. My choice to go abroad made me a completely different person, a person I am more proud to be today. It also revealed my thirst for travel, and helped me to decide what I want to study in college when I graduate next year. I think everyone deserves the chance to go abroad, and if you are ever offered the chance, take it”¦ fast.

My experience is something I will never forget, something that no one can ever take away from me, and something that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.