Cultural Connections: Community transformed Australian resident’s experience

By Julia Gaspar-Bates (View full story online on Hyattsville Life and Times)

Growing up in a small town in New South Wales, Australian resident Mandy Sheffer never expected that she would expatriate to the U.S. Born to British parents who had emigrated to Australia, Sheffer claims that she had a very average childhood: “I went to an all-girls Catholic high school. I went to college in Canberra and lived with my parents, which is quite common in Australia.” At 19, Sheffer participated in a cultural exchange to live and work at a ski resort in the U.S., a practice common with many young Australians. “I ended up at Wintergreen Ski Resort outside Charlottesville thinking that I would do childcare. However, when I arrived, I found out I was also a ski instructor. I mostly taught 2- to 3-year-olds to ski.”

Soon after her arrival in Charlottesville, Sheffer met her now husband, Thomas, who worked at the resort on weekends while going to school. She claims that she knew right away that she would marry him. For the next two years, they visited each other’s country on extended tourist visas.

In 2004, six months before Thomas graduated from college, they realized that they couldn’t continue the long-distance relationship indefinitely. Thomas proposed to Mandy so they could apply for a fiancé visa. Following graduation, Thomas joined Mandy in Canberra, Australia, where they got married and lived with her parents while she completed university.

When Sheffer finished her studies in 2006, the couple decided to move to Brisbane, Australia. For the next few years, they encountered challenges as each tried to navigate life together in a new culture. “It was hard being that young and married and getting to know each other. Previously every time we saw each other, it was like a prolonged honeymoon.”

They decided to return to Virginia in 2008, so Thomas could start graduate school in Blacksburg. “Moving here, I was desperately lonely. Thomas was immersed in school and working, so he was busy. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but looking back, I was quite depressed. At the same time, it’s a privilege to live in a different country, and not everybody gets that opportunity.”