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Surfing My Way to New Adventures in Sydney

Jul 10, 2017 8:30:00 AM / by Julie Ritz

A CAPA Alumni Interview: Jonathan Gerhartz

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Meet Jon Gerhartz, a Politics and Economics major at Ursinus College who studied abroad in Sydney during spring semester 2017. Below, he talks about his inspiration to study abroad, what it was like to live among and experience a different culture, and where he sees himself after graduation because of his experience abroad.

CAPA WORLD: Tell us a bit about yourself.
JON GERHARTZ: This past semester, I studied abroad in Sydney Australia. I left behind my friends at Ursinus College for a semester of adventure away from my schools location in Collegeville PA (30 minutes outside of Philadelphia). At school I play on the football team and am a leader of political activist organization. I spend most of my time training, practicing and playing football and working on majors in economics and politics.

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CW: Describe your background for us. Had you traveled before? What made you want to study abroad? What was the reaction from your friends and family when you decided to study abroad?
JG: Studying abroad in Sydney was the biggest and most adventurous thing I’ve ever done. I always wanted to travel but I never had the opportunity. I played baseball and football all summer when I was a kid and only made a few trips to Florida and the Carolinas. I became slightly more adventurous when I got to college; my freshman year I road-tripped to Vermont in the winter and down to South Carolina in the summer. These trips got me addicted to adventure and seeing new and exciting places. My sophomore year, I drove to Montreal with a few friends, which was my first time out of the country after living in the United States for over 20 years. Although it was only 5 or 6 hours north, being in a new country was the most exciting thing I had done. When I went back to school after that trip, I decided to apply to study abroad. I thought, "Why not spend a semester across the world, for the same price as it was to attend Ursinus while I still can?". My friends and family were shocked, they didn’t believe I would go until it got closer and more real. Every adult I talked to (with the exception of my loving mother) told me now was the time, that I would never have the opportunity again and that they wished they were in my shoes. It felt right to take advantage of the opportunity. My Mom and Dad were sad that I would be gone for over 3 months but were excited I could do something they never got the chance to. My mother and father worked their entire lives to send my sisters and me to school and take advantage of every opportunity we could. My parents were more than supportive of their son and I was honored to be the first of my family to make such a trip. At all times while I was away, my family and those who supported me were always with me.

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CW: Where were the places you carved out as "Your City" - the places you found outside of the tourist sites, the places that were most meaningful for you? What was special about them?
JG: Anywhere in Sydney was a beautiful and exciting place to be. I never felt any place there wasn’t worth a few minutes to take in your surroundings. One spot that I admired outside of the tourist sites was a staircase and park area at the end of Mary-Anne Street (the street the CAPA building was on). At the end of the street was a concrete staircase that led to a sidewalk and workout park on the UTS campus. I spent many night under the streetlights running and jumping up those stairs, sprinting to the workout park and cranking out pull up and dips for an intense circuit exercise. When I ran up the stairs and sprinted to the park, I could see the Sydney skyline. I remember one night in the pouring rain with my phone in a plastic bag I spent some time running those stairs. Some of my clearest and most meaningful thoughts came from those cool nights. It was a simple and quiet place but I will never forget how peaceful and simple life was from there.

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CW: Tell us a story of a memorable interaction you had with a local and why it left an impression on you.
JG: There were so many different interactions with many different locals that I will cherish forever. One that stands out only lasted a few seconds but leaves a shocking memory. I was hurrying my way to class as a typical Northeastern American would and was waiting to cross the road. In the few moments before the light changed to red and the sound of the walk indicator shot off like a laser cannon from star Wars, one of the men also waiting to cross sparked up conversation. He asked me how I was doing, where I was headed and how my day was going. Where I am from, no one has the time nor desire to strike up conversation on the street, but to this man that was just normal. This gave me real insight into the culture of Sydney and how friendly everyone was. I never got his name or found out anything about him but my day and week was significantly different because of those few moments. That minimal conversation sparked days of comparative thought between my home and host cultures. Such a simple interaction which had such an incredible impact on my experience.

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CW: We heard that you particularly enjoyed your experience at surf camp. Was this something new that you learned? What made it so memorable for you?
JG: Surf camp was one of the most unique experiences I had during my time in Sydney. Sydney is a huge and diverse city full of many cultures. I loved it for many reasons and its diversity was definitely one of them. However, my weekend at surf camp was all about Australian surf culture and it was incredible to indulge in that lifestyle for a few days. At seven mile beach about two hours south of Sydney, there is no cell service, no super markets and no hustle and bustle. All that matters are the waves, wind and tides as our surf instructor taught us. A typical day is spent surfing all morning and getting some lunch to reminisce about the day with your mates. I learned not only to surf but to live in the moment free of your phone and anxieties and just enjoy the ocean and people you are with. The friendly and fun local surf legends who led the lessons and hosted us in their camp made for an unforgettable weekend, surfing, relaxing and enjoying life.

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CW: Did you travel outside of your host city? Where did you go? How did your new environment compare with your host city environment? What new challenges did you encounter while outside of your host city and how did you overcome them?
JG: In my time abroad, I traveled to Bali, Melbourne and Cairns. Every trip was amazing filled with adventure and excitement. Cairns and Bali were filled with natural beauty. Melbourne was a huge fast-paced city which gave me a feeling of New York City. In Bali, we climbed a volcano at 3AM, rode ATV’s through the jungle and saw hundreds of colorful fish in the ocean. In Melbourne I went to the Gran Prix and saw an intense Australian Football Game. Of course, in Cairns I scuba dove at the Great Barrier Reef and went skydiving (something I never thought I would do). Traveling to these places gave me such an intense desire to be adventurous. It removed so many prior boundaries that made me stay home on dry flat land in the past. Now I feel there isn’t any thrill, hike, or dive too crazy for me to try.

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CW: Talk about your favorite class at CAPA. What did you learn? What activities did you enjoy? How were you able to apply your new knowledge to the way you explored the city around you?
JG: My favorite class at CAPA was Campaigning for Change. This class was taught by Connor Keane, a Politics and Law professor dedicated to inspiring young students to create the change they want to see in the world. Every student prepared a campaign to create positive change on an issue that was passionate to them. I learned to inspired others and lead a social movement that could make a difference in the world.

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CW: Tell us a bit about your internship that you completed while studying abroad, your duties and accomplishments. How will this experience help you in your future career?
JG: My internship abroad was with OzHarvest, an incredible nonprofit organization focused on reduced foodwaste throughout the world. During my time there, I worked on a groundbreaking project called the OzHarvest Market. The OzHarvest market now serves as a rescue supermarket (the first of its kind in Australia) offering free food to vulnerable people in Sydney. I learned so much about project management, nonprofit organizations, and food waste. This experience was amazing and one of my greatest accomplishments to date. I am honored to have been a part of such a great projects with a great organization.

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CW: What were the biggest challenges you faced in adapting to your host country? Most rewarding moment?
JG: The biggest challenge was communicating with loved ones back home. The time difference made it difficult to stay in touch with all of my friends. It was sad to miss out on Easter with my family and a few of my friends’ birthdays.

The most rewarding moment was seeing the opening of the OzHarvest market. I spent long hours every week at OzHarvest along with many other coworkers to ensure its completion. Seeing the market serve free food to vulnerable people was truly amazing. Our first customer was a mother who was struggling to feed her three children every day. She was thrilled with the food she could give to her sons after shopping at the OzHarvest Market. That one customers made every hour spent working more than worth it.

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CW: What do you see yourself doing when you graduate? Did your experience abroad in any way shape your career goals and aspirations? If so, how so?
JG: My experience abroad gave me a new perception of the world. Where I am from, most college graduates are focused on getting a job as soon as they finish school. Being abroad and having the opportunity to travel and volunteer has made me reconsider my future. Upon graduating next spring, I see myself taking some time off before entering the workforce. I may work a few months, save up some money and they travel for a few months. I hope to do this for a few years before settling down into a more permanent career. I see no rush to work 9-5 every day. I have my whole life to have a career but the opportunity to travel and see the world is quite short. I hope to take advantage of that in my post grad years and start a full time career when I am ready. 

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Thanks, Jon!

Learn More about the CAPA Sydney Program

Topics: Interviews, Sydney, Australia, Sydney Interviews