CISA National Conference 2017: Day 2 – Cultivating innovation and meaningful engagement

Day two of the CISA National Conference wasted no time as the opening session started off with a presentation by Dr Sally Varnham, Professor of Law at the University of Technology Sydney, who spoke about student engagement in governance and decision making.

She elaborated on how the international education sector interacts with the law and believed one of the biggest problems in engaging students was Australia’s lack of a great culture of partnership (she did later say, however, that this was changing).

To combat this, Dr Varnham has begun drafting a list of principles and a framework to around student participation and governance in Australia. She sourced inspiration from Scotland, New Zealand and Ireland, citing these countries as positive examples of engagement and further emphasised that participation was a culture and not an activity.

Following Dr Varnham’s presentation, a panel of student leaders and advocates spoke about their experiences and challenges in the sector and fielded questions from other student delegates.

Outgoing CISA National President Nina Khairina explained the experiences she had that ultimately steered her onto the path of advocacy for international students.

“The motivation to engage in student partnership began through hardship,” she said.

Her initial learning experience here in Australia was not ideal and through that, she discovered other international students undergoing the same hardships as her.

Some student delegates were keen to understand how they could further provide access to other international students who may want to engage but wished to stay away from a union or association. Others added to these concerns, citing financial and time constraints as reasons why some students wouldn’t be able to attend forums like the CISA National Conference to begin with.

Sina Khatami, Former President of UTS Nepalese Society and NSW International Student of the Year 2016, concurred and further said, “I think it’s very important for students to be in the government, to be able to analyse those issues effectively on behalf of [other] students, [present it and not go] against the university or government but [learn to] work along with those departments in collaboration to come to a better understanding between each other”.

To emphasise the relationship between the international student sector and government, students were led by bus to the Old Parliament House and provided a tour of Australia’s rich political history. Attendees were able to sit in the House of Representatives and the Senate and witness a live debate on the future of international students between professionals in the sector.

Innovation by international students

Innovation by international students was a focal point on day two as a panel on start-ups, facilitated by the University of Canberra, revealed the stories of past students currently undergoing their own innovation journey.

The University of Canberra’s speakers explained its programs and spaces were designed to provide and harness the culture of entrepreneurship. The panellists spoke of their experiences with the facilities and initiatives offered by the University of Canberra and at the same time provided insight into the startup sector. Students were urged to make their own opportunities, rather than wait for one.

One of the panellists, Raj, spoke about how he created his own opportunity after noticing that his former manager at Subway had trouble keeping track of how much each staff contributed to the production line. Seeing this, he created an app to help keep track of contribution called Stack Task.

Advice also provided by another panellist also elaborated on the importance of differentiating people who were being mean, and people who give constructive comments.


Awards were also distributed to international students and unions. Finalists were given the opportunity to pitch themselves to attending delegates who then voted for who they thought was most deserving.

In the end, Best International Student Event was awarded to Melbourne Polytechnic for its indigenous understanding event, ‘Moodji Day’.

Meanwhile, International Student Association of the year was awarded to the University of Melbourne’s UMSU International.

Additional awards were also given out to individual students:

  • VET/TAFE Student of the Year: Edgar Flores
  • Undergraduate Student of the Year: Sander Bredal – University of Melbourne
  • Postgraduate Student of the Year: Maria Claire Valerie Bay – University of South Australia

Student comments and feedback

After spending several days at the CISA National Conference, students had many things running through their minds.

Masters of International Relations and Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) Vice President Vibol Hy had a positive experience at the conference.

“It’s so great to see international students be here all together as one in solidarity and as a big community to show Australians and domestic students that international students are extremely valuable to this country in terms of talent, ambition and dreams, and even creativity. There’s a lot for me to take back home, knowing to fight further for international student rights through CAPA,” Vibol said.

He was extremely pleased especially with the high level of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engagement at the conference. However, he also felt that the conference was not inclusive enough.

“For me personally, as a gay man, an LGBT person within this community, it is disappointing this conference did not at least have a session on what the experience is like for international students who are LGBT because it is [a] harsh world for us and a lot of international students I [know] come to Australia because they need a safe haven from their country,” he says.

When asked what he would like to see next year, he states sessions on role models and empowerment for women and the LGBT community and more intersectional approaches to student rights.

Andrea Mayorga, a delegate from Columbia and president of the International Students Association of Melbourne Polytechnic had mostly good things to say about the conference.

“The topics [were] fantastic and challenging, with the different point of views provided by not only students but also by government and industry,” Andrea concluded.

“I met really beautiful people,” she said.

“[They] want to look after international students because they are looking for solutions for good quality of experience.”

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