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On Being An International Student

Thursday, 12 March, 2015

Ting-Jun Foo

It’s generally accepted that the University of Melbourne is culturally diverse, with people traveling from around the world to study here for their entire course or as an exchange student.

However, it is debatable whether international students assimilate into our community as well as we would like to imagine, with a possible “social divide” between domestic and international students.

Some division can be caused due to the language or cultural difference, but it often depends on the students themselves how deeply they feel the gap.

One international student said she distinctively remembered some segregation in one or two tutorials where the local students sat together and international students together. Her friend also considered local students to be more vocal during lectures and tutorials.

A divide can happen when people have difficulties in communication due to a language barrier. Although some international students are fluent in English, others are not native speakers and thus, not as confident in communicating. This may then lead to an attraction to students who speak the same language as them.

On the other hand, several students mentioned having a mix of friends who are both local and international students. While they spend more time with a certain group of friends compared to others, they do not go out of their way to exclude or isolate students of a certain or different category.

Although I see a slight divide between some local and international students, I don’t personally feel it. I am however, a slightly unusual case. I graduated high school in Singapore, but I am a domestic student here at Melbourne Uni. Having spent large periods of time both in Melbourne and in Singapore, coming to Melbourne for university felt like coming home more than anything.

My upbringing on both sides of the fence, so to speak, has helped me interact with locals and internationals. My knowledge of Asian cultures and traditions, together with the liberal ideas developed from time in Australia allows me to talk comfortably with people from varying backgrounds.

Likewise, some students have had large exposure to multiple contrasting cultures as a result of their parents’ jobs, or school that they attended. It may lead to them being more outgoing regardless of where or who they talk to.

In contrast, from the few students I talked to, those with more reserved natures tend to stick to people from their home country due to the sense of familiarity. External factors may also include such as courses, as particular courses have a larger population of people from certain countries.

Nevertheless, should students feel excluded by particular groups, the university has a wide variety of resources, such as the university’s counselling services to help deal with such issues as well as the student union.

Diego Tipan Naranjo

When I arrived in Melbourne from Ecuador, almost two years ago to study at the University of Melbourne, I asked myself, “Why is it so difficult to fit in to Australian culture?” The key to answer this question was in the question itself: “CULTURE”.

Television, radio, internet and social media simulate a globalised world. They also promote the idea that people share common values and principles. Unfortunately, the idea of a global citizen is not completely true. The values and principles assimilated by a person born in South America will be different to those of a person born in Europe. Those principles and values are the result of our heritage or culture.

When people leave where they have been raised and arrive at a new environment like Melbourne, they experience a process called acculturation or re-enculturation. This is a process to detach from the previous environment and adapt to a new one. Acculturation or re-enculturation is challenging because it requires quitting some of the deep habits acquired in your community, including changes in food, clothing, and language. When you face a new community, every single aspect of your life will change: from a simple way of saying hello to the ways to interact and communicate.

During my first semester, I realised that most of my friends only interacted with people from their own countries. At the beginning, I was very judgemental because I thought, “Why would you travel to Australia to interact with people of your own country?”. In one of my classes I found the answer to that question. People look for those who have same values and history, as a mechanism of self-protection and self-identification. People who share a common past, language, religion and experiences promote a better communication and social harmony. Common values play a big role in social relations because values are the result of unintentional, unconscious, and natural process of culture.

After understanding the diverse cultural difference we all have, I understood the powerful idea of common values: They represent culture and play an important role in human interactions. During the first semester, I went to a few meetings with other Ecuadorians. While I was talking and sharing experiences with them, I felt very good and comfortable. When I had meetings with my classmates or Australian friends, I didn’t feel the same connection as I did with the Ecuadorians. Later I realised that I interacted more with the Ecuadorians because we share ideas, customs and social behaviour.

Human behaviour is a very complex process. The cultural approach provides an explanation for the “social divide” between local and international students in this process.

It is not that international students don’t want to become a part of the Australian community. The process of acculturation or re-enculturation is challenging, and it takes some time and effort. Adapting to new social conceptions and social behaviours demands people to live, share, speak and eat in the new culture.

If you are an international student, do not give up. Get involved in the Australian community. Go to local pubs and restaurants, enjoy the local cuisine and go to a game of cricket or footie to experience the great sports culture in Australia. Do not be afraid to talk to Australians; they are very nice and friendly people. They might also want to get to know you.

If you are a local student, be patient. International students are learning as fast as they can. Give them a hand and be open-minded. You might encounter some surprises on the way as you mingle with the international counterparts. This could open you up to a whole new culture. Try to understand the differences between each other and respect the diversity. This is a key to build the bridge between local and international students.