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Fears and challenges an international student would understand

Nicole Tee

Fri Aug 28 2015


FINDING your way in a new environment, fitting in, and the pressure to do well and get a good job – it’s the many pieces of the puzzle students must figure out when they’re overseas. In her final year, Nicole Tee looks back and reflects on some of those things she wishes she could have changed. 


Everyday, international students in Melbourne must deal with the fears of uncertainty – to excel both in education and work, to integrate, to cope and grow in a new environment.  All are warranted fears that one faces.

After two years in Melbourne, these are fears that I thought I was done and dusted with. Like most international students, I joined a community in the university and stayed there. They became my family, and my support, and I never really considered expanding my horizons beyond this community. But on the tail end of my degree and transitioning into the working force, I am uncertain again.

Speaking to a friend recently, she gave me some advice for international students, which reasonated with me a lot. Looking back, I realised several things I wish I could have changed.

Acceptance – realising the new environment and changing accordingly

During discussions, my Australians peers would only speak within themselves… I was frustrated by their lack of communication… and the rejection I experienced – but I was never willing to participate actively so as to influence their perception of me as an international student.

Firstly, I wish I could have accepted that I was in a new environment.

I came here to Australia guarding my heart. In my first semester here, I was enrolled into a residential college against my will. Being new to this city, my parents thought that it would be a good experience for me. Besides, everything else was provided for – the laundry, the food and the whatnots.

College life, I would say, was an excellent platform to experience the Australian life. There were plenty of local and international students there, and it encapsulated the diversity that Australia was known for. However, it was something that I was not prepared for. Instead of accepting that I was in a new environment, I was protesting against the local culture that was different from mine.

In school, I was afraid to voice out my opinions. I felt inferior to my peers. During discussions, my Australians peers would only speak within themselves, leaving me out. I was frustrated by their lack of communication with me, and the rejection I experienced – but I was never willing to participate actively so as to influence their perception of me as an international student.

Awareness – getting work experience and building local networks

Secondly, I was unaware of the practices and systems of this country. Being in a new country, I had lots of things to learn. While I was looking for a source of support to tell me these things, it did not come. I realised that this was knowledge I had to gain by observing and speaking to people.

To get a job here, it is important to get prior work experience here. It was only in my last year of my undergraduate degree did I realise how dynamic my Australians peers were. They were actively undertaking internship after internship, despite their schoolwork. According to a 2014 survey conduced by Graduate Careers Australia, those who did work in their final year of school, especially if it was a full-time position, had a higher probability of being employed than those who did not.

In a deteriorating job market, Australians themselves are finding it difficult to secure a job after they graduate, what more international students?

It made me realise that perhaps discriminatory visa policies was not the only issue here that was keeping international students unemployed; it may be our lack of active engagement in this country. Australia provides an excellent training ground for the idea of global citizenship. We have sufficient opportunities to create local and international networks, but not all capitalise on this opportunity to do so.

While there were voluntary orientations that students had to actively seek in an attempt to familiarise us with Melbourne and the school, these efforts were short-term and unsustainable.

Perhaps and more often that not, we lack the knowledge and courage to do so.

Being in a new cultural and social environment, international students face bouts of “relational deficits”, a term established by Ami Rokach, a psychology professor from York University. A separation from their previous social networks and support systems, international students suddenly find themselves with the need to belong.

To belong, many find themselves going back to the familiar, to cope with the unfamiliar. We stick to groups of people with same or similar cultures, and we forget about achieving the full Australian experience – to immerse ourselves in Australian activities with Australians.

Among university students, the cultural divide between locals and international students is very real, and it is something I wish I could have realised and overcame earlier. While there were voluntary orientations that students had to actively seek in an attempt to familiarise us with Melbourne and the school, these efforts were short-term and unsustainable.

Given the contrasting student backgrounds and large intake of students, I understand it is difficult to integrate everyone in the school system to instil a sense of belonging. However, I wish there would have been more support from universities here to integrate us, both international and local students likewise. In my opinion, it is unavailing to achieve effective integration of both cultures if only orientations and programmes were planned for international students themselves. However, because of the voluntary nature of programmes in universities, it is difficult to ensure mass integration.

Finding meaning in the community – a natural progression towards integration?

In my opinion, orientation and fun bonding activities to instil a sense of belonging is not a sustainable solution towards integration.

Perhaps finding a bigger cause or a reason that both local and international students can resonate with would naturally bring them together. Implementing mandatory programmes in the form of workshops and discussions that would allow students to find a place not only in school, but in the larger community would be useful to this integration. For example, providing platforms for both international and local students to come together to think of solutions for problems in the world, be it education or poverty for the underprivileged.

Opportunities for students to come together for a common goal, and in the midst of it, exchange political, cultural and humanitarian ideas and discussions, would provide understanding between different cultures and experiences. In my opinion, this would allow for active engagement and mutual learning between local and international students, thus engendering a natural breakdown of barriers between “us” versus the “other”, and lead towards a progression of integration of both cultures, and a sense of belonging for both.

After all, the best way to learn is to be immersed in cultures, and learning from our peers and our surroundings.

Nicole Tee is currently in her final year of education, pursuing a Bachelor of Arts Honours degree in Asian Studies at the University of Melbourne. She plans to stay in Melbourne to pursue a career after graduation.

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