THE Couch provides a safe space filled with laughter for international students. Chrisella Sentana visits the space for a talk with its hardworking coordinator, Peter Hichaaba, on what a typical night is like.
It’s a typical Tuesday afternoon in Bourke Street where the sight of people rushing to get home after a day’s work is not uncommon. In the middle of all the bustle, lies a tucked-in lounge, nestled away in an unassuming part of the busy street. It is here where Peter Hichaaba asks “So guys, are you ready to dance?” to his volunteers as they prepare to salsa.
Open on late afternoons, The Couch is a place where local and international students gather under the same roof for a night of activities, good food and great company. It provides a chance for students to take a time out from their worries and forget about their troubles.
“So many international students come through the doors, soaked from the rain and with tears in their eyes. They tell me how they much they have regretted coming into Melbourne, and how they wish they could book the next flight home.”
“This is why The Couch was set up. We want to provide a sense of home and belonging for young adults who feel at odds with their surroundings.”
Living in a new country can be an alienating experience. Students feel lonely, and sometimes all they need is just someone to talk to.
Hichaaba believes the key to helping international students is to help them bond with those around them by creating a comfortable environment for them to be themselves and have fun.
“From yoga to dance classes, we get students to try out these free activities, have a laugh and a chat with the person next to them.”
“Many international students have commented on how difficult it is to form friendships with local students. These events open up conversations between them on the activity they just had. And hopefully, [this leads to] a terrific beginning to start friendships.”
In addition to creating a bridge between local and international students, The Couch also focuses its efforts on helping students with their life concerns. Hichaaba stresses the importance of communication to address these problems.
“It takes time to build trust and open up to someone. I talk to students frequently, try to be a good listener, and build good relationships with those who walk through the doors.”
“Over time, they share their problems to me, and I do my best to connect them with advice with those who can help them.”
“We have volunteers coming in to teach barista classes to create work pathways. There are also regular conversation sessions where students can practice English.”
From corporate lawyers, police officers to PhD students, The Couch is run by volunteers from all walks of life.
“The Couch is completely run by the work of our volunteers. It’s amazing to see so many people selflessly come in to spare a bit of their time, and to help put a smile on students.”
Overall, The Couch has proved to be quite the rewarding experience for Hichabaa.
“I love my work here; it certainly does not feel like a job to me. I learn something new every day from those around me. It is an amazing experience to be able to see a student coming in feeling upset and [then have them] leave with a good smile on their faces.”
For his efforts, Hichabaa’s contribution to the wider international student community did not go unnoticed. Earlier this year, The Couch received the award for Most Active International Student Club from CISA (Council of International Students Australia), the largest national peak body to represent international students.
The Couch has grown tremendously over the past 5 years, and he looks forward to seeing the space continually transform through the work of those visiting the space.
“The future is now. It belongs to those who come in. At the end of the day, I hope students can feel a sense of ownership in making The Couch ‘theirs’. It can be interesting and fun – the place is just the way they make it.”
People enter The Couch wearing different suits from their lives and are gathered for a night where they can take their armour off and enjoy the company of others. So… are you ready to salsa?
The Couch is an initiative of the Salvation Army. It is located at 69 Bourke St and is open from 5.00pm – 9.00pm every Monday to Thursday. Interested in volunteering? Shoot out an email to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information, or head straight over to The Couch to fill in an application form.
The story was supported by the City of Melbourne’s Community Services Grant 2014, and is part of the ‘Day in the life of…’ project featuring a cross-section of the diverse local Melbourne community – the extraordinary and ordinary people in the city, their lives and their jobs, and opportunities to connect.