University of Melbourne Magazine

A friendly face in a foreign land

  • Picture: Chris Hopkins

    Picture: Chris Hopkins

    It’s a cold and blustery day in Melbourne, so Odgerel Ochbold should feel right at home. Yet these conditions are not what she anticipated when she left Mongolia’s capital, Ulan Bator, in January to start a two-year Australia Awards Scholarship at the University.

    Odgerel, a Master of Management (Finance) student in the Faculty of Business and Economics, arrived expecting Melbourne to be “green and hot”.

    “That was my expectation, but it is very cold here!” she says – and that’s from someone from the world’s coldest capital city, where winter temperatures regularly plunge to minus 40 degrees. “Compared to Mongolia, it is not so cold – but it is very chilly, which was a shock.”

    Travelling overseas to study can be a daunting experience, and not just because of surprising weather. Beyond cultural shocks, loneliness is often an unwelcome companion and finances can be stretched thin.

    The University’s Welcome to Melbourne program – now in its fifth year – offers an antidote to some of the problems affecting Australia Awards students. Each semester, more than 150 students – mostly doing postgraduate studies – are partnered with a local alumni host who seeks to smooth the way and introduce them to the city and the University.

    Robyn Campbell, a pioneer of the first Welcome to Melbourne program in 2010, is acting as Odgerel’s host. “I’ve had students from places as disparate as the Philippines, Tanzania, Uganda, Fiji, Mongolia, Cambodia and now Liberia,” she recalls as she sits in a cafe and does a very Melbourne thing, sharing a flat white with Odgerel and another of the students she is hosting, Cambodian Saovorak Nov.

    Campbell spent five years as the External Relations Director at Melbourne Law School and still mentors Juris Doctor students, many benefiting indirectly from the Welcome to Melbourne program.

    “One of my Law students is meeting with my Welcome to Melbourne Vietnamese contact – Pham – in Hanoi,” she says. “She wants to work with overseas not-for-profits, so Pham will assist her and other Australians.”

    “But what I’ve gained the most are many joyous relationships.”

    Campbell’s pride is evident as she recalls the story, and her enthusiasm is infectious. She likes to encourage her students and provide friendship on what can be an emotional journey.

    Nov, who is studying the Master of Development Studies at the Melbourne School of Government, made significant sacrifices to come to Australia. He has left behind a wife and one-year-old son in Kampong Chhnang Province to learn skills that will benefit rural Cambodian communities.

    “I came to Australia because the education system is one of the best in the world and I really want to improve my English,” he says.

    He is effusive about the Welcome to Melbourne program and his adopted home. He laughs when asked about Melbourne’s public transport, a bone of contention for many locals.

    “For me it is actually very convenient and safe,” he says of his daily commute from Springvale to Parkville. “Back home we don’t have this kind of public transport and from my province to Phnom Penh is a two-hour taxi ride.”