CISA President Nina Khairina and her pathway to progress

AS the face of international students, CISA President Nina Khairina’s job isn’t easy but her inspiring desire to oversee progress for international students has led her to be where she is today. Stephen Clarke chats to the new President of CISA about her pathway into international student advocacy.


Photo: Julian Tay

Since being elected the new President of the Council of International Students Australia (CISA), Nina Khairina has been busy and on the move. Presidency in the student-run organisation requires meeting a lot of new faces and stakeholders in the booming business of international student education. Her induction has already taken her to Canberra and Sydney. 

A life on the move is nothing new to Ms Khairina, however. Although she calls Jakarta home, she hasn’t lived there for more than six months in a while. Even before that, her family was often on the move due to her father’s work.

For a while, Ms Khairina thought she was going to travel down the scientific path. She graduated secondary school in Singapore and studied at Serangoon Junior College where she was a member of the National Robotics Team. She has also spent two years studying in the US as part of the Head Start program designed to further primary education for children from low-income families.

Before she began her latest overseas adventure in Melbourne, Ms Khairina spent a few months travelling around Indonesia, sometimes with friends and sometimes alone, trying to reconnect with her culture and sense of identity, which she felt had faded during her four years in bustling Singapore.

“Before I came to Melbourne…I wasn’t wearing the hijab on a full-time basis. I decided when I came here that I wanted to be a full-time hijabi.” – Khairina on being a hijabi in Melbourne

Landing in Melbourne represented not only a change of country but also of disciplines, much to her parent’s consternation. Ms Khairina began a double degree in Politics and Asian Studies which she found to be a refreshing change to science. She admitted that she enjoys Asian studies much more than politics, but said “if you want to make a change, you’ve got to understand the way it works”.

“Changing to humanities was a stark contrast, there’s such a difference. That was pleasant because you get to meet very, very different people with very diverse opinions [and] that’s amazing.”

As much to placate her parent’s worries as her own, Ms Khairina spent her first six months in Melbourne living with a Muslim family, which she found to be an enriching experience that paved the way for her time in the city.

“My parents wanted to make sure that the foundation was alright for me. Before I came to Melbourne … I wasn’t wearing the hijab on a full-time basis. I decided when I came here that I wanted to be a full-time hijabi.”

As part of her work with Image supplied.

Nina Khairina’s contribution to the Woman of Colour Collective’s “I, Too, am Monash” campaign at Monash University where she studies. | Image supplied.

Being a hijabi, however, has brought it’s share of unwelcome looks, stares and even racist comments. Ms Khairina especially noticed an increase in unwelcome behaviour last year during the heightened tensions around the Lindt cafe siege in Sydney.

One night she was on the train by herself when a group of teenagers sat down behind her. She could tell they had been drinking.

“They were sitting behind me and making comments like; ‘Do you smell a Muslim?’ [I was] really scared, and it doesn’t help when other people don’t respond to it or don’t stand up for you.”

Like in many of the grainy videos of racial harassment that appear all too often on our newsfeeds and on TV, nobody stood up to defend Ms Khairina or tell her harassers to stop.

“I was one of the first few people who joined [Monash Women of Colour Collective]. The most memorable part [is the] discussion about the problems and the issues that you go through as a woman of colour.” – Ms Khairina on her time with Monash University’s Women of Colour Collective

After that, she became more paranoid, afraid even, of walking and travelling by herself.

“I was walking home…and it was broad daylight, and someone was just calling out “Hey!” and I just got really scared. It got to that point, but it’s a lot better now.”

“Now I just try to brush it off. That was one of the suggestions, when I talked to the Victorian Police…and one of them was a lady with a hijab and she told me; you need to stand up for yourself, be brave about it and brush it off.”

As an experiment, she spent a day without her hijab. The difference was noticeable. She didn’t receive any stares, nobody glared at her and she didn’t feel uncomfortable the entire day.


Photo: Julian Tay

As she learned how to approach and get past her fear, Ms Khairina began searching for other female international students who had faced similar obstacles. Her search led her to the Monash Women of Colour Collective last year, which at the time had only a few members.

“I was one of the first few people who joined. The most memorable part [is the] discussion about the problems and the issues that you go through as a woman of colour.”

“Having a desire or passion to help fellow international students is always easy; but execution is always the most difficult part. I believe that Nina has demonstrated this.” – Multicultural Employment Consultant at Monash University Danny Ong on Khairina’s presidency at CISA

The collective is a safe place for female international students. They can sit and talk openly about subjects or issues that affect them as a group. They can open up about their experiences, both the good and the bad, and help each other. Sometimes they read their favourite poems or just hang out.

“That opened up my mind a lot and it was probably one of the best decisions I’ve made.”

Today the group has more than 100 members on its Facebook group and meets weekly.

Ms Khairina’s decision to run for CISA president was less than certain. In fact, by the first day of the conference she had resolved not to run. However, throughout the conference other students kept coming up to her and asking why she hadn’t been nominated. 

As the President of the Council of International Students of Australia, Ms Kharina and her colleagues have been able to meet with importnat palimentary figures including Education Miniister Christopher Pyne.

As the President of CISA, Khairina and her colleagues have been able to meet with important members of Australia’s Parliament including Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Hon Christopher Pyne MP (pictured). | Image supplied.

After talking to Monash’s Multicultural Employment Consultant Danny Ong, she had a change of heart. Having mentored and worked with Ms Khairina whilst she was president of Monash University International Student Services (MUISS), Mr Ong saw that she had both the desire and the capacity to initiate beneficial changes.

“I have seen the vision that Nina had for MUISS at the start of her presidency, and how she had undertaken constructive steps to achieve her vision,” Mr Ong said.

“Having a desire or passion to help fellow international students is always easy; but execution is always the most difficult part. I believe that Nina has demonstrated this … she often sees challenges with a cool mind without letting her emotions cloud her judgement.”

“We need to go out there more and engage with the world.” – Ms Khairina on the need for international students to become more globalised

Ms Khairina did submit her name. She wasn’t expecting much to come of it. In fact, she was on her way to the airport to visit her family at home in Jakarta when she received the news that she’d won.

Her initiation into CISA came at the cost of a few late nights however, as she has had to juggle celebrating Eid — the end of the Islamic holy month of fasting, Ramadan — with her family during the day and learning the ropes at night. 

In the future, Ms Khairina wants to return to Indonesia and give back to her home country. She talks passionately about wanting to spice up the education system and add a stronger element of humanities and critical thinking to the curriculum for primary school students.

“I really want to see my country progress, there’s so much potential. Every time I engage with the Indonesian Student Association … there [are] so many good talents, but we’re not globalised. We’re not internationalised. We need to go out there more and engage with the world.”

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