Welcome to Melbourne: 10 years on
A program pairing local alumni with international students is making for rewarding cultural exchanges. By Kate Stanton (MJourn 2016).
When University neuroscientist Dr Nupur Nag (BSc(Hons) 1997, PhD 2004) hosted a dinner party for her new friends, three students from Indonesia and Pakistan, one brought her favourite dessert – durian.
The others tasted this pungent but controversial delicacy, which is popular in Indonesia, eating small mouthfuls and agreeing it was lovely. That was, until politeness gave way to laughter, as three admitted they couldn’t finish it.
Thus began the friends’ “food challenge”, where a new food was trialled at each meet-up. Together, they have tasted Vegemite on toast, garlic crackers, salted egg yolk and fish skin, bonding over each other’s likes and dislikes. It’s now a group tradition, along with regular walks and dinners and coffee catch-ups.
Nag met all three women as a volunteer for the Welcome to Melbourne program, which pairs local alumni with international graduate students who have received the prestigious Australia Awards Scholarship. Now celebrating its 10-year anniversary, the program aims to make participating students feel more comfortable in Melbourne by introducing them to a local resident.
Nag, who lived previously in the US and Singapore, says her experience living abroad as an expat was her motivation for joining the program.
“It can be difficult settling in to a new country due to differences in culture and social values, and also not having your family or friends for support,” she says.
“Knowing someone local is invaluable as they can provide insight on a diversity of topics – from where the best local café is located to how the government is elected.”
Nag has hosted 11 students since she began volunteering for the program in 2010, developing friendships with most but, in particular, these three women: Nur Atika and Jinia Lilianty from Indonesia, and Saqiba Sheerazi from Pakistan, who are undertaking Master’s degrees in public health, biomedical science, and information systems, respectively.
Nag introduced all three women to each other during a dinner party, and now all four meet regularly for walks, dinner, cultural events, coffee and conversation. Nag and Atika even met and travelled in Indonesia together.
“We all share a very good bond and understanding,” says Sheerazi. “Whenever we are together we just talk and laugh a lot.”
Since 2009, more than 1500 students and 770 hosts have participated in the Welcome to Melbourne program. Students have come from 18 Asian and African countries, including Ghana, Sri Lanka and Mongolia.
It’s not so much an academic exchange, as it is a social and cultural one, says Catherine Navon (GDipArts 2003, MMgt(Mktg) 2012), the University’s Australia Awards co-ordinator.
“The point is for them to have an opportunity to meet a local that’s not in the context of their academic obligations,” she says.
The alumni relations team tries to match volunteers with students based on shared interests and hobbies. The pair are only required to attend an initial launch event and undertake one activity together. There is no obligation to continue the friendship.
“The beauty is the simplicity,” Navon says. “Meet up twice. Have a cup of tea. Have a chat. Now you know someone else who is a potential friend.
“It may or may not blossom further. Either way, that’s great.”
Students involved in the Welcome to Melbourne program come from developing countries eligible for the Australia Awards Scholarship, which is awarded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It’s a big deal, and recipients are expected to use their Australian education to drive change back home.
The exchange goes both ways. Navon says it is also in Australia’s interest to develop positive relationships with people who are going to be in positions of influence in their home countries.
“They’re highly accomplished and ambitious,” says Navon. “These are people who are quite visionary. That’s why they get the scholarship in the first place.”
That doesn’t mean they don’t get homesick. Many are used to being surrounded by extended family.
Navon says some participants come from big cities, such as Jakarta, but some also come from smaller cities or towns. “For them, Melbourne is the big smoke,” she says. “That can be really lonely.”
In 2016, when Luong Tran moved from her village in Gia Lai, in the central highlands of Vietnam, to study epidemiology and biostatistics in Melbourne, she was overwhelmed. Even the University campus seemed too big.
“I had no smartphone on my first day and had to ask so many people around my house how to get to Melbourne Uni,” she says. “And then, when I got there, I needed to ask more people how to get around Melbourne Uni.”
Tran was paired with Sue Lees (BA 1978), a retired teacher and counsellor, and her husband, Andrew (MB BS 1979), a retired GP. They invited her first to an Australian dinner – roast lamb and veggies – at their home, and now meet occasionally for coffee.
“They were so nice and showed me that Australian people are friendly,” says Tran, who wants to improve Vietnam’s health research capabilities.
Sue Lees says she and her husband, who have hosted three students through the program, were inspired to participate after volunteer teaching trips to Nepal and Timor-Leste (East Timor).
“It really opened my eyes to how important education is as an opportunity for people in third world countries,” she says. “We decided the Melbourne Uni program was a program we could actually get involved with here as well.”
The Lees stay in touch with their students during their two-year education in Australia, and beyond. They have already visited one of their students, Vicchra Mouly, back in Cambodia, where she now works for an international labour organisation.
“I’ve come away with a great respect for these particular students,” Lees says. “Each of them that we’ve seen really wants to go back and do something for their country.” Lees says they have taken students to the beach, to Williamstown Pier, to Healesville Sanctuary, and have been surprised by how much they themselves enjoy seeing Australia through fresh eyes.
“Even going to the beach can be such a special experience,” she says. “They opened our eyes to their lives and their values, and we gave them a bit of ours.”
Putting out the welcome mat
770 hosts have connected with 1574 students since 2009
Students from 70 countries have participated
30% of students from Indonesia
Other countries most represented: Vietnam, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Cambodia
Biggest participation was in Semester 1, 2014: 346 alumni and students