Will Kelland, '15

June 13, 2014
Richmond student experiences life in the outback with an Aboriginal Australian tribe while studying abroad.

Cultural immersion is the ideal achievement in studying abroad. Reaching complete cultural immersion is a sort of study abroad nirvana.

For Will Kelland, '15, cultural immersion took him into the heart of a continent to live with Aboriginal Australians.

A leadership studies major and religious studies minor from New York City, Kelland spent 2013 studying abroad in Brisbane, Australia, at the University of Queensland (UQ), a Richmond partner institution.

Kelland has a strong interest in helping youth and volunteered to mentor Aboriginal Australian students in Brisbane high schools through the Australia Indigenous Mentoring (AIM) workshops.

Interested in taking the experience further, he applied for a license to run youth programs in the outback village of Engawala Rock for about six weeks during the school break. Located about 200 km (124 miles) from Alice Springs, the remote Aboriginal Australian lands of Engawala Rock are protected from tourists and require a special license to access. Kelland says he was one of a few college students in the state of Queensland to receive the license from the Central Desert Government.

“The point of the whole experience for me is to get out of the comfort zone,” he says. “Why are you going abroad if you are going to speak English the whole time with your buddies from the same uni?”

Any cultural adaptations he made in his first semester abroad he left far behind in Brisbane. At Engawala Rock, Kelland lived in a trailer with occasional electricity. His Aboriginal Australian neighbors, who spoke Eastern Arrente, lived in a handful of houses accommodating 20 people each.

Kelland describes the culture he observed in Engawala Rock with awe.

Nearly everyone—man, woman, and child—may have the role of parent, and they take care of one another. Power is equal among men and women. They adore children, and the children act like siblings whether or not they are. You can’t share photos of them or talk about their tribal business outside the community. Aboriginal people look away when you’re talking, and they don’t follow the Western concept of time.

“You could see how happy these people were with each other, and so much had been taken from them,” Kelland says. “They are willing to live in absolute poverty to be together.”

In addition to the cultural differences, he had to adapt to a harsh physical environment where temperatures soar above 32 C (90 F) in winter.

“It seemed like everything could kill you there,” he says. “We had snakes and spiders…and dingos. Tribe members kept dingos as pets, and they would bite kids all the time.” Kelland carried a metal pipe on his exercise runs to protect himself from the dogs.

Gradually, he became part of the local society. He was even invited to hunt with the men, a significant compliment in the culture.

As his time at Engawala Rock came to an end, Kelland was offered a longer-term job, and he almost stayed.

“I absolutely loved it,” Kelland says. “But, I kind of realized I needed to get a degree.”

Back at UQ, he focused his second semester on his 400-level classes on Aboriginal studies. His next step was returning to Richmond and assessing how these experiences could apply to leadership.

“Before, I didn’t think that there was that much that I could do,” Kelland says. “I figured that as a student you learn, and sit on the sidelines. I didn’t know I could actually go work with governments.”

He learned that spending time with constituents to learn firsthand the root of problems informed how to develop solutions they would embrace.

“It kind of feels like I graduated,” he says. “I went and did all this stuff, and now I’m back. I got lost my first day back on campus.”

Lost at Richmond? Blame it on cultural immersion. Complete, cultural immersion.

Photo: Will Kelland experiences Australia on local terms.