All that Glitters is not Gold12 December 2019
Every year, the city of Melbourne witnesses the arrival of countless international students. Australia is the third largest destination for foreign education, and is expected to overtake the UK this year.
An Australian academic degree is seen as a passport to an upgraded quality of life by most international students. And they’re absolutely willing to pay huge sums for it. In Australia, a degree roughly costs $70,000, compared to just $20,000 in New Zealand or $55,000 in Canada. I paid $70,000 to be where I am today.
While it is a privilege to be able to afford an education abroad, many unspoken costs like underpaid wages, homesickness, cultural shock, financial instability and underemployment came as a surprise. But as an international student, I’m not sure if these costs are worth the price our parents pay.
Having been in Melbourne for almost two years now, I’ve found that international students stress for reasons that might astonish Melbourne locals. India is a developing country. The roots of people are embedded in its long existing traditions and rituals. Many leave their homes only to marry and commence a new chapter of their lives. Stepping outside to academically compete with folks from an array of backgrounds is nothing short of an escapade for international students.
When I spoke with other international students, I noticed there was not enough support to aid them in their new beginnings away from the comforts of home. Even though I was lucky enough to have a friend waiting for me outside the airport, where does a student go for assistance on initially arriving in Melbourne? Their university? Their agent? Who else?
“Initially, I found prepping even two meals a day very difficult and time consuming.”
It was Ayushi’s first time away from the luxuries of home. Ayushi Parikh is a woman from the Gujarat state of India who, like myself, is in her last semester at the University of Melbourne. She did not know how to overcome odds that she had never dealt with before, especially in a new land. To her, even sustenance seemed challenging. Her anxious mother, worried about her daughter leaving for college without a lunch box, could no longer run after her daughter before she left for university.
“I would end up eating just one meal during early evenings,” Ayushi recalled. “That would suffice my appetite for both lunch and dinner.”
Cultural Adjustments Don’t Happen Overnight
For Aditya Ghosh, who studied at Monash University, cultural shock was exactly what he had anticipated.
“The major challenge in the first month was to be independent and to learn by trial and error,” he said. “Even now, living here for long time periods without visiting home makes me homesick, especially when you’re a man of colour.”
Being a brown man in a foreign land can be appalling. The long-existing social stratification in India has imbibed in its citizens a dread of being distinguished on factors like colour and creed even today. Now, someone who already carries with himself a fear of being ‘different’ is certain to carry such fears with him wherever he goes.
Pluralism, same sex relationships, equality of genders are still amid other factors that have not been acknowledged by quite a number of third world societies like India. In the specific case of India, even though we have progressed through leaps and bounds, 200 long years of colonisation have left their bearing. This is doubly true for people coming from smaller and less advanced states of the country.
Unfortunately, an international student might find it problematic to take directions from a woman, contrary to a local who might find such an act immensely discourteous. Well, feminism in India is not a topic of sensation for no reason.
Language is a Huge Barrier to Finding Employment
Finding a job that pays enough to cover expenses is perhaps the most challenging and frantic state most students find themselves in. To add to the mammoth sum of tuition fees, the atrocious currency differences do little for students’ financial scenarios. Students are often left with no choice but to ask for money from back home. Study and work can be stressful to deal with simultaneously.
“To earn money did make me financially independent, but it was a tough ride,” says Safi. “My biggest struggle was to find a job without knowing anyone in this country apart from balancing it with hefty assignments.”
Speaking English is more than just a prerequisite to becoming qualified to study in a foreign land. In Australia, most part-time jobs necessitate knowing fluent English. It’s easy to see why a lot of international students find it tough to secure themselves a decent job, let alone survive through it.
Flashes of discomfiture while realising the trivial flaws in spoken phrases that no one ever amended are part of the learning slope.
“It took me time to get accustomed to the Australian slangs,” smiles Aditya. “No worries mate had more to it than the most obvious meaning: I’m not worrying.”
Differences Are Everywhere, Even in The Classroom
Unlike ROTE learning in Asia, which is a more sophisticated word for memorisation, the education system in Australia prioritises comprehension of knowledge. ‘How much can you remember’ is substituted by ‘Do you understand’. This difference makes it less hectic for students who have been buried in books in their entire academic cycle, trying to fit everything in their brains, notwithstanding the content’s relevance in the long run.
Ayushi says, “The difference is in the way students are taught and expected to function; it took me a while to cope with multiple deadlines but now it’s nothing different from any other exercise because I understand what I’m doing.”
So What Do International Students Want?
“For those sponsored by their parents, ensuring stable employment opportunities is the least the government can do,” said Ayushi after a little thought.
Guidance and hands-on support would help international students understand the dynamics of Melbourne. This support would help students feel at home and improve their experience.
“The government can identify and solve major challenges by carrying out research, surveys, etc,” suggests Safi. “Running seminars and workshops that cater to different glitches would be a great start.”
When I look back now, I can recall learning to cook through YouTube, doing laundry, competing to stand out in the class. I remember how I initially disliked the taste of the local beer. I look back on how I’ve changed since landing in an unknown land on the first day, to now calling it second home. These escapades, while mundane, made it a once in a lifetime learning experience.
“There were struggles and there were days so bad that I just wanted to quit,” Aditya says. “But it was worth it!”