Diversity Issues in UMSU International8 August 2019
On 13th May 2019, the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) International elected a new committee which will lead the union from
August 2019 to July 2020. This year’s newly elected committee continues the trend of previous years’ of having dominance by students from South
East Asian countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. To Farrago’s understanding, every member of the current committee is from Asia.
The racial and cultural make-up of the recently elected UMSU International committee includes seven people from Malaysia, four from Singapore and three from Indonesia. There are only two Chinese students on the UMSU International committee, although Chinese students form the largest percentage of International students. Only two representatives are not from South East Asia, though these positions were won without contest.
This lack of cultural diversity has been acknowledged by incoming President Archit Agrawal. “I think that it is definitely Asian dominated, specifically [South] East-Asian dominated,” Argawal said he agrees that racial diversity should be addressed but he does not want to put in place any rules that might discourage participation from the Southeast Asian community. Currently, UMSU International does not enforce Affirmative Action policies on its committee’s positions and is not looking to implement it anytime soon as well.
Affirmative Action policies are those that help to level the playing field for those who are systematically at a disadvantaged due to their race, colour, religion or gender. UMSU has such policies implemented. In its constitution, it states that departments with two officers must have one be a Woman. This is with the exception of the Queer department where one officer must be a Woman or Trans and the Women’s department where one officer must be a Woman of Colour.
“We don’t want to not give a chance to people who are really motivated and who really want to work for the student union just to look for people that have a diverse background.” Agrawal said that he is comfortable with Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean students making up the majority of the committee as long as it does not become “a trend that only these students get representation in the student union,” as it has in previous years.
Additionally, he said that since the committee is formed through an election, members do not have a say in or control of the makeup of the committee.
“[This year’s committee is] more racially varied than previous years however, still a despairingly unrepresentative team,” said Nishtha Banavalikar, a first- year International student, “The committee members are voted in, and hence are supposed to represent what international students want. But with very small voting turnout and quite targeted campaigning techniques, it results in a very isolated and homogenous pool of students casting the votes.”
Agrawal believes that even without UMSU International taking calculated steps to increase committee diversity, the issue is beginning to remedy itself and his election is proof of this despite him winning uncontested. He said that he is the first Indian-national President in a decade and the first gay President.
Shashwat Tripathi, an unsuccessful contesting candidate for this year’s Education and Welfare Director position and Cultural and Social Director, agreed that having the union dominated by East Asian students is not an issue. However, he acknowledges that this domination “[obstructs] other ethnic groups to feel equally associated as they might feel that they do not belong there”.
Banavalikar noted that there is “an evident lack of black and brown, and even white voices,” which she believes can lead to an “erasure of minority voices”.
Agrawal acknowledges that there is a lack of participation from non-Asian international students and expressed a desire to increase participation from European and South American students. However, he also said he finds it “difficult to connect with them.” He understands that the union’s issues with connecting with non-Asian international students needs to be addressed and solved.
Outgoing President Jonas Larson, a Norwegian student, does not feel the cultural disconnect that other students described, saying “I’ve always felt included in this community of predominantly Asian students.”
Currently, the union’s outreach efforts primarily involve giving out flyers at Union House and promoting their events on social media. A proposed solution
by Agrawal to diversify the committee is through the International Student Ambassador (ISA) program in the upcoming semester. Membership and participation
in the program are usually the first steps for students before competing in UMSU International elections and potentially becoming office bearers.
“I think personal ties with culture drastically affect our mindsets and hence our priorities and perspectives in the roles we have,” said Banavalikar. “Without voices for minority groups on this committee, their experiences become overshadowed as they are not at the forefront of anyone’s minds.”
Agrawal expressed a similar sentiment on the importance of diverse voices in the union, “It’s an international student union, it must represent all students on campus and you must find your voice, your community must find their voice [in] the union for them to be able to rightly address [the] issues faced by that particular community.”
Larson recognises the importance of increasing diversity of UMSU International “to ensure our community reflects the vast cultural diversity of the larger student body at the University.”
“As an international student, I am more concerned with whether the core committee is able to represent my thoughts, values and concerns at important platforms and bring significant and visible changes rather than divert all its resources and energy on making events like Night Market a success,” Tripathi added, “They are in a position wherein they can literally make many important and beneficial things happen for students. I, unfortunately, find a great sense of lack of accountability in this sphere”.
Reis Low, a third year International student from Singapore shares Tripathi’s sentiments, “I get that there’s very few commonalities between countries besides enjoying food and capitalism, and I get the desire to keep things light and good vibes only but it’s not what I came [to the union] for,” said Low.
Low notes that the perception of UMSU International not representing a diversity of races, cultures and ideas mentioned is what keeps international students like him from participating fully in UMSU International’s events and elections.
Farrago has approached John Hee, UMSU International’s 2017/2018 President and Christabella Mahendra, UMSU Internationa’s 2019/2020 HR Director but have yet to receive a reply.
Larson cited large-scale events such as the Night Market and the Festival of Nations as efforts made by UMSU International to foster cross-cultural interaction. He said that achieving greater diversity in the committee will be done through increasing students’ awareness of the union, something he hopes will be achieved soon.