THE Council of International Students Australia (CISA) National Education Conference held last month reminded Diane Leow of the power of a collective voice. She tells you more about how spending three days with international student leaders reminded her that change is worth fighting for.
When I first left Singapore for Melbourne seven years ago, there were several things I wanted to leave behind: memories of a constricted education system, my struggles with maths and a plethora of poor grades. I was glad to be moving on and looked forward to a different phase of life. One which I would be able to enjoy learning, and be able to grow from a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
But there were some things I was determined to hold close to my heart. My Singaporean identity, for a start. Being able to sing my national anthem with pride, while not understanding more than a tenth of its lyrics. Or knowing how to differentiate Singaporean Hokkien Mee (a noodle dish cooked in prawn stock) and Malaysian Hokkien Mee (a dry noodle dish braised in dark soy sauce)… and the list goes on.
What I didn’t expect was to bond with a group of people – of diverse nationalities, backgrounds, interests and cultures.
Last month, I spent three days in Sydney covering the CISA Conference for Meld. This was CISA’s third National Education Conference, and my first. Over 250 students from all across Australia – both local and international – flew to Sydney to bring up various student issues, and attempt to find solutions from the discussions.
Ultimately, what bonded us, all of us, was the promise of a better environment for international students. While our individual stories are unique, we understand what it’s like to be different.
While it was impossible to learn the names of every delegate, it was awesome to see students from diverse backgrounds and cultures come together in an attempt to bring change. One student leader declared that while we won’t experience the benefits of changes as students, our efforts will benefit future generations of students to come.
What struck me in particular was the sense of unity present at the conference. National identities and personal loyalties never got in the way of our mission. There were times when healthy debate raised a few eyebrows, but ultimately we were all looking for the same thing: a better student experience for students who just arrived, or are about to arrive, in Australia.
On my first day, I sat at a table with delegates from the University of Queensland and Murdoch University. To my surprise, two local students made up the group from UQ. The rest of us were international students from Singapore, Burma, China, and Malaysia – we became instant friends over free food (of course), visa issues, thesis woes, and later on – cancelled flights (thank you, budget airlines). Local students expressed surprise when they found out international students in Victoria do not get public transport concessions. They were also mostly unaware about international student fees, which are priced from a five-figure sum.
With some 500,000 international students enrolled in various institutions around Australia, not every student is going to stand up for their rights. Many have taken it lying down, believing that it’s the status quo. Worse, some think that if they challenge the system, their visas will be revoked.
Ultimately, what bonded us, all of us, was the promise of a better environment for international students. While our individual stories are unique, we understand what it’s like to be different. To be paying copious amounts of money in search of an education that promises to pave our future. We’ve either been victims of exploitation at work, or know someone who is paid $9 an hour serving dumplings when minimum wage is $16.35. Most of all, the 250 people at the CISA Conference believed that change, while arduous, painful and difficult, is possible.
Beyond the free food, speeches, and discussion sessions that left some of us glassy-eyed, there was an innate sense of pride that we are standing up for something worth fighting for.
Six and a half years after I first boarded that Melbourne-bound plane, I relinquished my student status. Every February and July, I can’t help but smile when I see brand-new students walking to class. I’m reminded of my time at university – bright eyed and hopeful for the future. Thanks to the efforts of various international student bodies, I hope that these students one day are widely recognised as an intrinsic part of Australia’s social fabric, and not simply seen as “cash cows”. I hope Victorian international students will one day pay concession fares on public transport. Most of all, I hope that some of these students will stand up, tell their stories, and fight for change – no matter the obstacles they may face.