This January, a group of 14 NYUAD students gathered in Sydney, Australia, for the University's Coastal Urbanization and Environmental Change J-Term course. An almost equal mix of juniors and sophomores, many of us looked forward to the opportunity to travel to a new place and conquer our science lab requirement efficiently. But along the way, we explored the beautiful city of Sydney and learned about how we interact with and influence our coastal ecosystems — for better and (more often) for worse.
While the topics we discussed during the course were of a global nature — like the use of groynes, a type of breakwater, in Italy to protect beach fronts, or the destruction of mangroves in South East Asia to clear space for shrimp farming — we also spent a considerable amount of time on class trips in and around Sydney, witnessing first-hand the effects of human development and climate change. On a tour led by an indigenous Australian, we saw natural coastlines and manmade sea walls while also learning about how indigenous Australians used the land sustainably before European settlement. Another tour of Sydney architecture showed us the many innovative ways the city's buildings are being adapted to their environment — a tour that took place during the morning of the fifth-hottest day on the city's record.
As we learned more about the sea and its border, we began to point things out to each other. We wondered whether the famous stretch of Bondi Beach sand was natural or needed replenishing. We showed each other the bags of garbage hanging over the storm drains that emptied onto the coast, and tried to avoid the beach after storms, having just discovered that heavy rainfall can cause the sewage system to overflow into the storm sewer. And we particularly enjoyed the exhilarating effect of the riptides when we did go in the water.
In between classes, we were able to take advantage of all that summer in Sydney has to offer. We enjoyed the open parks and Sydney Festival events, and developed second-degree burns on the beautiful beaches. While the city can be expensive, the hot sun and salty sea breeze motivated us to take advantage of the freedom of being outdoors as much as possible. We also tried many of Australia's ubiquitous meat pies, the cheapest meal available, and some of us even tried kangaroo — a little like chicken, but with more of an acquired taste. The general agreement was that emu is better.
While the topics we discussed during the course were of a global nature, we also spent a considerable amount of time on class trips in and around Sydney, witnessing first-hand the effects of human development and climate change.
For myself, coming from Canada, Sydney was almost startling in its similarities; it felt as though someone had transported my home city to a semi-tropical climate and changed the people's accents. In a way, the similarities helped me understand my own home country more than traveling to more dramatically different countries ever has. Many of the things I liked about Sydney — its happy summer atmosphere, its friendly people, and its relative diversity — are also things I admire in my own city. At the same time, other both negative and positive aspects of Sydney helped me to understand where my own city is lacking and prompted me to think of whether I can do anything to bring positive change home.
My fellow classmates also enjoyed the opportunity to explore a new culture and compare it to their various hometowns. Laila Al Neyadi, Class of 2014, who is from Abu Dhabi, observed that Sydney — as a coastal city with its eyes on the future — "is the kind of city that Abu Dhabi would like to use as an example," as well as the fact that "it was hot, so that was homey."
Overall, then, we each relished the chance to enjoy the wonderful Sydney summer while learning more about how we interact with the environment around us. As we pursue our own respective majors, I feel confident that we will find ways to incorporate what we learned. Indeed, as I flew into LAX from Sydney for the next leg of my university adventure, I found myself noting the different types of coastal engineering on display at the edge of the azure sea below.