Student stories: The first few weeks in Melbourne are the hardest
STUDYING overseas can be exciting but those first few weeks of adjustment can be tough and outright terrifying for many international students. Shaofei Xing speaks to Chinese international students about their stories of adjustment.
It is O-Week.
On the South Lawn of the University of Melbourne, occupying the seagulls’ ordinary hangout, laid a row of white tents. Groups of students lined up and waited for their turn to talk to those inside the tents. Others meanwhile had their hands cupped to their mouths, yelling at the crowd to attract attention.
“Two dollars for a lifelong membership!”
“Five dollars to learn a new language throughout the whole semester!”
“Join our club for ten dollars and you can get a chance to win a $1000 bonus!”
Among them Xiao Qian, a Chinese student, in a green checked dress and red knit, asked every student passing by about the whereabouts of her valued pen.
“Did you see a pen just now?” she asked students. “The upper part of it is pure white, and the lower part is like stardust which contains many shining tiny clear crystals.”
In the midst of signing up to student clubs and societies, and chatting with new friends, Xiao didn’t notice she had lost her beloved pen – a sentimental gift given to her by her boyfriend as a birthday present.
“I like it so much and bring it with me every day. And now it’s just gone,” she sighed.
The first weeks
Xiao’s experience of orientation week is indicative of the kind of dizzying environments many international students often find themselves in as they adjust to their new home away from home. It is at once exciting, stressful and chaotic.
Other new international students may identify. Over the course of orientation, Xiao needed to enrol for her subjects, buy textbooks and take care of her social life by signing up to different clubs. She felt overwhelmed even before the semester had begun.
For Accounting and Finance student Yuqing, her first experiences of adjustment took place before university.
Yuqing came to Melbourne four years ago as an international high school student and studied at Alphington Grammar School.
The first few weeks were daunting. She had difficulties starting conversations with others as she could not understand the Australian accent and way of greeting. She found cultural differences made making friends with local students difficult. It took her some time to get accustomed to her new environment but Yuqing wasn’t the only international student at her high school to have struggled.
“One Chinese boy had real problems getting used to the new learning environment,” Yuqing said.
“He spoke poor English and couldn’t understand [what was being taught in] class. Later, he refused to go to school and of course he failed most of the exams. He told me that he would have a video chat with his mother every evening, complain about the situation and say how much he miss[ed] home. Even if it was just a two-week break, he flew back home.”
Adjusting to student life abroad isn’t just about becoming accustomed to the country’s culture and lifestyle, but also learning to adapt to a different education system. There can be a great deal of difference between how students study in their own country and how they have to study in Australia.
In China, for example, most of the universities still have a set class schedule for undergraduate courses. Students cannot enrol in subjects based on their interests or choose their class timetables. However, when they come to study in Australia, students can independently choose their own subjects and preferred timetables.
As such, taking initiative can pose a challenge to some international students who need to become more confident in thinking critically, discussing and being proactive in tutorials. Chinese students in particular are quite shy and don’t like to express their opinions in class, even if they have the right answer.
Xiao said she seldom answered questions in class.
“We like to keep our own opinions,” she said.
How staff, students and others can help new students adjust
Fortunately, schools do try their best to assist students to adapt to the new learning environment and culture. The University of Melbourne Student Union, for example, hosts information sessions where staff try and help solve students’ problems at the beginning of each semester.
For Yuqing, it was her high school head teacher who helped her go through the most difficult time.
“She was really kind-hearted and patient. When I asked her questions, she explained to me slowly to make sure that I could catch up with her. I [liked] talking with her very much [and] it was a good chance to practice my oral English too,” she said.
Yuqing also sought advice from senior students when it came to course selection and other information relevant to her student life. She now hopes to go on a study exchange in Europe after choosing Spanish as her third language.
Alongside staff and fellow students, homestay parents can also help international students feel more welcome and confident in their new home. Xiao said when she first came to Melbourne, her homestay parents took her to buy daily necessities, open her bank account and help her become familiar with Melbourne’s public transportation network. On the weekend, they would drive her around the city, showing her remarkable places in Melbourne like the State Library of Victoria, the Yarra River and the Shrine of Remembrance. They also took her to local events and festivals.
Adjustments take time
It will take time for new students to find their place in this new culture and environment. There will be times of success and hardship but the promise of a world-class education and the opportunities that arise from being an independent young adult in a new country can often make up for those difficulties.
That said, it is important for international students to keep an open mind and a positive attitude during this adjustment period, and it could be better if local students understand how hard this transition is for their international peers and offer to help if need be.
Studying abroad marks a new beginning for all international students and eventually most will learn to call this foreign land home.