At the end of my last year in high school, I met a girl in the year below called Noémie. I told her I liked her a lot, but that I was going to Australia at the end of the month. And that maybe I would see her again one day.
With all its high-rises, Perth seemed like a very big city to me when I first arrived. I’m from Reunion, a tiny French island off the coast of Africa with mountains, a volcano and beautiful lagoons. And I had never left my country before. Luckily, I stayed with a host family who helped me settle in quickly.
Because my family had taken out a loan for me to study here, I had to find work quickly. So after a couple of weeks, I got my first job – as a cleaner in the university toilets! Every morning, I left home at 4am on my bicycle to get to work before class.
After I finished, I would go to English classes with other students from all over the world. It was fascinating for me to meet people from places like Japan and Korea and to learn about their cultures. But not being able to speak the language was frustrating. The way I measured my progress was by how many times I would have to repeat myself when I was interacting with a local. At first, it was around 5 times, but then slowly, it became 3 times, and then finally only once!
Noémie and I stayed in touch. And after she finished high school, she said she was coming to Australia too. I said, “Look, don’t come just for me. You’ve got to have your own path because I can’t guarantee that we’re going to be together forever.” But she decided to come anyway, to study English.
By then, I had started my Certificate IV and Diploma in Environmental Management. When I finished, I had levelled up in English enough to work in a cafe, so I felt I was making enough to support myself and pay for a Bachelor of Environmental Science.
Luckily, I did really well in my degree, and was accepted into an honours year, working on a wastewater treatment project. Next, I was offered a scholarship to do my PhD on the same subject. I worked really hard for three and a half years to finish on time. And by the time I finished – I knew I didn’t want to do research anymore!
However, while I was studying, I was also working part-time in a science museum presenting school programs, which I really enjoyed. So next I decided to work as a full timer in their Outreach Program. As a result, I ended up travelling to a range of schools throughout Western Australia, which was amazing. I think I’ve seen places that many Australians haven’t, including extremely remote indigenous communities in the Gibson Desert, which would take us a whole day to get to. Those students had such a thirst for knowledge.
After a year, my visa was due to expire, and New South Wales was the only state that had Research Scientist on their skilled occupation list. So Noémie and I took our small Toyota Corolla, and drove all the way across the Nullarbor to Sydney! I worked there for a year, managing a team of presenters who did science incursions in schools, and felt proud to be moving up in my English level and in my career.
Next, we went travelling overseas for two years, and when we came back, I scored a job in Brisbane, presenting science workshops in primary schools again – getting the kids excited with a bit of science, and a bit of theatre, all the things I love. And I’ve been working with that company ever since.
Noémie and I are still together all these years after I first met her in high school. We were planning to get married in 2020, but unfortunately, our flights got cancelled because of COVID. So we didn’t get married, but we had a child instead.
This year, my son Cedric was born, the first Australian of the family!
Photographer: Pia Jessen www.piajessen.com
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