Now in my final semester at the University of Wollongong, this place, and the friends I've found along the way, have been keeping me company for three years.
Today, I was on the train from Central back to Wollongong with three friends. One was a first-year student on her first sightseeing trip around Sydney. Seeing her excitement visiting all the Australian landmarks she had only seen on television, took me back to three years ago, when I made the same trip, on the same train. The only difference was I was alone and the only thing that alleviated my loneliness at the time was the extremely blue sky, which I had never seen in my hometown - Hanoi, Vietnam.
Before I left Vietnam, my dad asked me to write in a diary every day so in the future (sadly that future is coming very close) I could look back and see how I have changed. Though it was impossible for me to keep up with that habit, writing this story has given me a chance to reflect on the whole journey.
Taking in all the Australian sights has to include feeding a kangaroo. Photo: Hop Dao
Not going with the crowd
Unlike most international students of the same age in Australia, I chose to study journalism. It's not a popular choice because journalism is not on the Australian Skilled Occupation List, making it generally harder to secure a stable job in Australia after graduation. Being the only foreign face in my degree was not a nice feeling at first, but being asked why I decided to study journalism put me in an even harder situation.
International students around me were talking about shortcuts to getting permanent residency, even before they commenced studying. Some even said my degree was useless.
Others wondered: "Aren't you afraid to sit in a class that requires you to have a great understanding of local cultures while you're the only non-native speaker in your class?"
My reply? "Isn't it better to learn more about Australian lifestyles and their languages?".
Say my name
Two weeks after uni started, I realised there was something even more confusing than the tenant contract my landlord gave me: how to identify myself in class. Foreign letter combinations, extra tones and last-middle-first name ordering all make Vietnamese names hard to pronounce - my full name has all of them.
It was in my first politics class that I started to think seriously about having an English name. The tutor opened his class roll and started calling out names. Though he had carefully repeated each name twice, I couldn't hear a single word that sounded like mine.
I couldn't help but think: am I sitting in the wrong class? Is my English so terrible I can't recognise my own name?
After the third time he repeated one name, I heard something vaguely similar to my middle name. Asking to look at the roll, I figured out they actually put my middle name in place of my first name. It's funny to reflect on now, but at the time it was unsettling.
There were times afterward I told people to call me Claudia, Charlotte or Alexandra. But then, after continually referring to myself by my real name, I decided to keep it with me.
Outside of class, I found heaps of volunteer opportunities on campus. I started off in my first semester as a participant and volunteer at Illawarra Committee of International Students (ICIS). I joined as a way to take my English to the next level, but got so much more. It was here that I met some of the most important people in my life.
A good way to meet people is to get involved with volunteering or join different groups, like the Illawarra Friends of International Students group. Photo: Illawarra Friends of International Students
Great opportunity brings great responsibility
Sending a child on a trip abroad to study is not something that every family in my country could choose to do. The fact that I am the first member of my extended family to study outside Vietnam was largely celebrated, but it also brought pressure to succeed.
Every student has similar pressures: studying, getting a part-time job to pay their weekly rent and looking for job opportunities. However, I feel the majority of students who choose to study overseas - carrying the expectations of our parents - have more courage to survive and grow in an unfamiliar setting, compared to those who are going to universities in their home countries. Acknowledging all this, I had a stronger feeling about my uniqueness.
Taking a breath
Second year was the period when I settled down. I gave myself a chance to rest after finding accommodation, adapting to new social ties and accepting the fact that my mark at university may not be as perfect as my high school GPA.
There were heat waves that were gradually killing me throughout the humid summer and there was a winter below eight degrees that reminded me of my beloved home city. But after a year, the sky of Wollongong was still as beautiful as the first day I arrived.
Hanoi hadn't changed, but I had when I returned home for a visit. Photo: Mehdi Genest, Unsplash
Holidaying back home
If anyone tells you culture shock only happens when you go to a country other than your homeland, my last trip home proved how wrong they are.
I was now used to waking up as late as I wanted, knowing that I'd already arranged all my classes for the afternoon. Going on an outing to Kiama, staying overnight at my friend's place - these things didn't need permission from anyone. But while I wasn't as free to do as I pleased at home, there were still some things I found very comforting like mum's cooking, high school class meetups and the endless street food paradise that I could never find anywhere else.
There were times during those three months that I didn't want to come back to Australia to finish my degree, even though I only had one semester left. Yet the day I returned to Australia, travelling alone from Sydney International Airport, I looked out the train window and saw the now familiar bright blue sky. It was just what I needed to get through the next few months.
Enjoying the sunny blue sky with my first roommate at City Beach in Wollongong. Photo: Hop Dao
One third-year subject put me in a situation where I needed to interview a person with a guide dog. I was desperately going to every guide dog centre, from Wollongong to Sydney, seeking help. However, due to privacy issues, no one could give me any leads. When it was only two weeks until the due date, I thought I would try one last thing: sending emails to everyone I knew, telling them what I needed.
To my surprise, I received an email from the previous Secretary of ICIS less than an hour later. It said he was sending out emails to his network, and he told me to wait for the miracle to come.
"We found a person with a guide dog for you." After my information was circulated to a much larger community than my own, I got an email saying he found someone who I could talk to.
As I am rushing to the end of my degree - entangled in a web of finding internships, trying to land a job and doing major projects - having a network that I can rely on is such a therapeutic thing.
Another chapter of my life
If university has taught me one thing, it's that everything I am doing is shaping my future in ways that I could never imagine.
Now, I'm curious to see what my future will be like after I graduate and throw my cap into the bright blue Australian sky.
I can't wait to find out.