THE years spent overseas is an important period for many international students and fresh graduates as they work out their lives and their careers. Melbourne alumni Diane Leow sifts through eight years of memories and reflects on some of the highs and lows.
When I first left for Melbourne in 2007, I did not expect to stay that long. The plan was to finish my Foundation Year and a Bachelor’s Degree and return home. I’d chosen Melbourne for very practical reasons – its proximity to Singapore, having relatives who were already there as international students, and the reputation of its educational institutions.
After a confluence of unforeseen events, I stayed longer than expected, going on to complete a postgraduate degree in journalism, and the two years after that looking for work.
The overseas student experience… represents the opportunity to start over. While students head to Melbourne in pursuit of a degree, they also get the chance to explore a beautiful country, get to know its people, and in the process get to know themselves better.
Looking back, I realise some of the biggest learnings took place outside the classroom. There were life lessons about budgeting, friendships and relationships; as well as opportunities for personal growth and self-discovery, including developing a good work ethic, having the courage to try new things, and eventually discovering my strengths and building on them.
As a student hailing from Asia, we’re well-versed with the expectations that come with an overseas education funded by our parents. Go overseas, do well, come home with a reputable degree – preferably in business, accounting, law, engineering, medicine or education. But the overseas student experience is more than that. It represents the opportunity to start over. While students head to Melbourne in pursuit of a degree, they also get the chance to explore a beautiful country, get to know its people, and in the process get to know themselves better.
With the many friends I made in Melbourne, I realised we loved many things about it – but most of all, the fact that we could be totally ourselves. We explored the markets and learned to cook, even if we may have burnt some pots (or set some fire alarms off) along the way. We may not have started as coffee drinkers, but ended up being addicted to it somehow. A friend of ours loved his coffee so much, we bought him a coffee machine for his birthday – and now, we dub him the coffee expert, while he works in the finance industry.
The opportunity to try new things such as volunteering with an organisation or the liberty to take elective subjects totally unrelated to your degree also opens up a world of perspectives and possibilities for students. The process of self-discovery helped a friend find her passion, and upon completion of her degree, return home to start her own dessert and event styling company.
Not all memories however, were good.
Alas, every prospective employer I interviewed for loved my resume and hoped to hire me – except that I wasn’t a permanent resident of Australia. Or that the employee visa was way too difficult to navigate and therefore they couldn’t make an exception for me.
Lecturers and tutors extolled the virtues of putting yourself out there and cold calling companies to get the experience I wanted. I was confident that my degree would put me in good stead after graduation – but I couldn’t be more wrong.
While it was a difficult time in the media industry, for the most part, the doors kept shutting because I was told I didn’t have enough experience. It was a chicken-and-egg dilemma; I couldn’t get work experience because I didn’t have work experience.
It took a chance encounter that led me to Meld Magazine, where I had the opportunity to gain experience, albeit voluntary, in an area related to my field. I couldn’t help but wonder about other friends who tried so hard to find work experience only to get knocked back time and again, or were forced to accept dodgy jobs because it was the best option at the time. They would not dare speak up to the Fair Work Ombudsman for fear of losing the only means to their livelihood, and I empathise because it’s such a frustrating cycle to be caught in.
But as a I later discovered, even work experience wasn’t enough to help secure full-time employment to stay on in Melbourne. Alas, every prospective employer I interviewed for loved my resume and hoped to hire me – except that I wasn’t a permanent resident of Australia. Or that the employee visa was way too difficult to navigate and therefore they couldn’t make an exception for me.
I won’t pretend to understand the intricacies of migration law, which can be very complicated. And I fully agree when people say students who go to Australia should not expect migration to be a right. What I do wish, however, is for a process to make things easier, instead of having to go through convoluted channels just to find the right advice. Perhaps a dedicated migration help-desk would be useful, so students don’t get duped into paying for good-for-nothing services, or worse still, overstay their visa without meaning to.
For the most part, these challenges served to make us, international students stronger. But I wish that one day, maybe even in the near future, this would no longer be part of the Melbourne experience.
While it was heartbreaking to say goodbye to Melbourne, and I was apprehensive about returning home, I did leave having landed my dream job back home in Singapore, and eight years worth of memories and experiences that I would not exchange for the world.
Thank you for everything, Melbourne. You are amazing, and I miss you more than you know.
Diane Leow graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 2010 from The University of Melbourne. She later went on to complete a Master of Journalism from Monash University in 2012, after which she worked as a digital journalist and communications consultant in various start-ups. In 2014, she returned home to Singapore to take up a role as a digital journalist with Channel NewsAsia in Singapore.
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