When Aberdeen student Sabina Saveljeva arrived in Australia in January 2020 as part of her exchange to the University of Western Australia (UWA), little did she know that she would be caught up in a global pandemic which would make it impossible for her to return to Scotland.
Now, after almost 14 months of living in Perth, Sabina has decided to make her move more permanent with the help of the University’s Go Abroad Team.
Born in Latvia 21 years ago, Sabina completed International Baccalaureate in her last two years of high school before moving to Aberdeen in 2018, to begin studying for a MA in Economics and Finance.
She applied to the International Exchange Programme with the aim of studying Economics, Finance and similar disciplines outside of Scotland, and became the first student in Aberdeen’s history to go on an exchange across two academic years. However, not long after arriving in Australia last year, the rapid spread of Covid-19 put paid to any plans to come back to Aberdeen.
“Returning home turned out to be very complicated; flights kept getting cancelled and I heard from friends that their journeys home required a lot of connecting flights and prolonged waiting periods at different airports.” explained Sabina.
“The Go Abroad office in Aberdeen and I mutually agreed that it was best for me to stay in Australia. I felt incredibly lucky, especially as Covid-19 was almost non-existent in Western Australia. Cafes, restaurants, and bars remained open and classes were still held in person at my university. My parents were also incredibly supportive of my staying in Australia.”
Sabina received much needed support from the Global Learning Offices at both universities, especially when she decided to extend her exchange and transfer to UWA permanently.
“Melanie, my exchange supervisor in Aberdeen, is from Australia herself so I felt more understood when telling her about my experiences here and she was incredibly excited to follow my journey abroad, too,” said Sabina.
Despite her delight at being able to continue her studies at UWA, Sabina found the past year difficult at times, particularly having to say goodbye to new friends who were also on the exchange programme and who had to leave abruptly due to Covid. Making new friends with other students who had already established their groups was difficult and she started to feel the isolation and loneliness of being so far away from family and friends.
“With my friends being scattered across the globe, there’s an eight to twelve-hour time difference between them and I, so we often struggled to find time for video calls that would suit everyone.
“Having a long-distance friendship with people I used to see every day promoted a feeling of loneliness. Even though I kept socialising and eventually made new friends and started a relationship, I found myself going back and forth between feeling like an intruder or as if I didn’t belong here in Australia. Deep down, I felt jealous of the domestic students, who already had a friendship group coming from high school and whose home and family were just a couple hours’ drive away.
“But I think that’s just one drawback of being an international student – and there are definitely more good days than there are bad. I still talk to my friends from Europe and North America each week and we’ve made plans to visit each other once Covid is over.
“In terms of feeling like you don’t belong and not having your immediate family at arm’s reach, that’s something I’ve grown out of. My family is always there for me and only one call away, no matter what time of day it is. So sometimes it doesn’t even feel like we’re miles away from each other.
“Mental health is a highly important issue here, too. The abundance of mental health support services at university and beyond allows regular appointment with professionals and alterations in assessments, if necessary. Besides, everything is either covered by insurance or subsidised by university, making it accessible to everyone.”
Sabina is loving her time in Australia, in particular the weather and the opportunity to engage with nature.
“Covid motivated us to travel interstate during the holidays, so my friends and I have visited some of the most beautiful beaches, waterfalls and gorges I have ever seen. Road trip culture is very big here. Doing the most ordinary things like outdoor cooking, setting up tents or trying to locate a destination really brings people together.
“My favourite part, however, is probably the Australian animals. I spent my winter break volunteering at a wildlife rehab. It’s fun to also regularly spot possums, cockatoos, and dolphins as a part of your walk around campus and the Swan River nearby.”
Looking forward to the end of this year when she will graduate, Sabina is planning to apply for a year-long Honours programme at the UWA. She very much sees her future being in Australia.
“When I was in Europe, Australia seemed unreachable. I remember applying to go on exchange to UWA and thinking I wouldn’t get in. Fast forward to now, I have an amazing friendship group, a boyfriend who’s Australian himself, and a job I recently started. My life in Australia has beautifully evolved into something I could not experience elsewhere.”
Melanie Viney, Lead Go Abroad Officer (International Exchange and Study Abroad) said it was the first time the University has been able to help a student realise their ambitions to stay in another country.
“Things went pear-shaped for Sabina shortly after her arrival in Perth with the onset of Covid,” said Melanie.
“As time went on, and she was doing so well there academically, physically and psychologically, and given Covid was worsening here, she requested an extension for a further six months. That had never been done before but, after discussion with the Business School, we approved it subject to UWA's approval.
“Sabina has told me that the opportunity has been such a positive impact on her life that she wants to finish her degree there. She has been made an offer from UWA to formally transfer and remain in Australia to complete her degree. We are absolutely delighted for her and that we have been part of making that possible.”