Alumni Spotlight: Karen Backes


Karen Backes is 19 years old. She is a psychology student at the University of Florida who loves photography and musical artists who rarely tour outside the southern hemisphere. Originally from a small town in Northwest Florida, she decided to make her longtime dream to visit Australia a reality and studied in Sydney from June 12, 2014 to July 26, 2014.

What did your provider do for you and what did you need to do on your own?

Karen: IES provided housing, transportation from the airport upon arrival, plenty of information about getting around in Sydney, and a few well-organized field trips. A few days after arriving in Sydney, we visited Featherdale Wildlife Park and went hiking in the Blue Mountains, and in early July, we spent three days exploring Uluru, Kata Tjuta, and Kings Canyon in central Australia.

The optional trip to Royal National Park, which included canoeing and a demonstration of traditional Aboriginal weapons, was also a lot of fun. I had to purchase my own plane ticket to Sydney and I was also responsible for my own meals, public transportation tickets, and other expenses such as a local cell phone.

How has this experience impacted your future?

Karen: I believe I’ve officially caught the travel bug! Studying abroad opened my eyes to just how big the world is and how much of it I haven’t seen yet. I can definitely say I’m a more independent and self-motivated person now than I was before I studied in Sydney; I learned a lot more about myself in those six weeks than I ever would’ve expected to.

As for my professional goals, one of my lecturers in Sydney had a background in social work and inspired me to look into it as a future career, perhaps even in Australia. Through taking his class, I also developed an interest in advocating for and working with indigenous people. Regardless of what I end up doing in the future, I know the knowledge and experience I gained from studying abroad will help guide me towards a career I’m truly passionate about.

Do you feel you got a chance to see the city from a local's perspective?

Karen: I was fortunate enough to have made a few friends in Sydney prior to my arrival, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to meet them in person. Consequently, I spent a fair amount of my free time hanging out with locals. My Australian friends introduced me to a lot of great places to eat that I probably would not have stumbled upon otherwise – The Pie Tin in Newtown quickly became one of my favorites.

I also enjoyed attending performances by local musicians with people who shared my passion for relatively obscure Australian singer-songwriters. While I did miss out on a few popular tourist attractions and festivals, I feel like I got to experience the “real” Sydney and I would not trade my authentic experience for anything.

What was the best place you visited outside of your home-base city?

Karen: Due to the short duration of the program, the only place I visited outside of Sydney was Australia’s Red Centre. The three days I spent in the outback were perhaps the most memorable of my entire visit to Australia. On the first night, we watched the sun go down at Uluru, which is a really spectacular thing to witness; the orange rock turns bright red and you can see the full color spectrum in the sunset.

We also hiked up a portion of Kata Tjuta, where we were rewarded with a fantastic view of a valley below us, and on the final day, we walked along the edge of Kings Canyon. Throughout the trip, we developed a greater understanding of Aboriginal culture with the help of our knowledgeable guide. It was refreshing and exciting to spend a few days away from civilization and photos do not do the views justice.