The Invisibles: Reflections of an Overseas International Student13 April 2021
As semester one 2021 began, campus grounds awoke from almost a year of dormancy, filling up again with sights, sounds and students. Social media timelines flooded with summery snapshots of students on South Lawn, or hugging the University’s teddy bear mascot. Some official University accounts even started pushing the #RediscoverUnimelb hashtag, urging students to explore campus beauties. Everything looked beautiful, and back to normal.
Except nothing is normal. Not for me, not for many, not really.
For the pandemic has divided the student population in two. On one hand: the visibles—primarily locals, interspersed with a handful of international students who had the capacity and resources to wait COVID out in Melbourne. To clarify: this piece is not an indictment of such students. Good for them. Like all of us, they deserve the university experience of their dreams. This is instead an indictment of the University, who refuse to acknowledge the other half—the silent mass of international students sprinkled over the world and across timezones. The invisibles—those both out of sight and out of mind.
Conversations with other international students reassured me that such concerns and disappointment were not mine alone. Some spoke of having to wake up early or stay awake until midnight because certain subjects do not accommodate for their time zones. Many said they felt isolated, disconnected from campus and from each other. One described their University experience as tantamount to “watching Youtube tutorials a few times a week”. All unanimously echoed the absurdity of having to pay tens of thousands of dollars for online courses. Eyes were rolled at the University’s gaslight-ish claim that Zoom tutorials offered the same quality of education as in-person classes.
Beneath the University’s attempts to project normality seethed despair, hopelessness and uncertainty.
Given past reactions to international student concerns, I expect little empathy from most readers. Well, you shouldn’t have chosen to go home, one might say. To that, I reply: imagine being a teenager whose first language isn’t English, living alone in a continent that is not home. Imagine losing your job, and watching yourself haemorrhage rent and living costs despite not actually needing to be in Melbourne. Imagine having to choose between seeing your family and being kept away from a campus you nonetheless pay full fees to study at. Believe me when I say the choice wasn’t made lightly. To me, at least, it was an unjust and impossible choice that resulted in unjust and impossible consequences.
Our community’s issues have always mattered less. For example, it’s undeniable that the ‘No Cuts’ campaign attracted much more effort and attention than the fight for fee relief. This is in no way a condemnation of the former, which was a courageous attempt by grassroots activists to defend higher education against destructive neoliberalism. But why was there not equal outrage on behalf of international students, who were told to leave the country by the PM, and are now banned by that very government from returning? Who find themselves paying the same rate for an experience that is vastly different to what they initially signed up for? Who see the University returning to “business as usual”, posting aesthetic pictures from South Lawn as though they are not continuing to actively exploit a massive percentage of their student population?
Where is the outrage? Where, the solidarity?
Sometimes, in my most paranoid moments, I even wonder: given the tensions and pushback that have always surrounded the issue of international student presence on Australian campuses, is this not what many would consider the ideal situation? A campus largely devoid of internationals, but that continues to be disproportionately funded by them anyway. An overseas student population whose money is still funnelled into expansions and developments, while the nuances and complexities of their physical presence no longer have to be dealt with. Does the silence, both from the University and from most student representatives, reveal implicit acceptance of a convenient situation?
An ugly accusation, but I find no other explanation for the deafening silence that surrounds the many injustices international students have faced since this pandemic began. Because, surely, if the roles were reversed, things would be different. If mostly local students were forced to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for online classes, the outrage from the public and from students representatives would be immense. Those in power would at least have the decency to make a little clamour and clangour, feign some outrage and pretend to care. But instead of rallies, pitchforks and torches, we get silence and invisibility.
I am certainly outraged. But one person is not a productive movement. My outrage alone will change nothing; it will only end up consuming me whole. Silence is a coping mechanism against the awfulness of the position I find myself in. Writing this piece meant opening old wounds; it meant confronting the awfulness and being hurt by it anew. But silence is not complacency. My silence, like that of most international students, is the product of hopelessness and despair. It is the silence of those who find themselves alone on the field, with neither allies nor reinforcements, and realise they are fighting a battle most people couldn’t care less about.
Our community is a diverse one, as is reflected in our varied demands. Some students I spoke to mentioned their desire for fee relief. Others wanted the University to take a firm stance on easing border restrictions for students, or at least keep international students more regularly updated on the situation. Some demanded they channel their ridiculous surplus into avenues tailored towards international student needs, such as extra academic support, internships and job or visa opportunities. And what I—a tired, worn-out international student miles away from a campus I can hardly remember—want is visibility, fury, and solidarity. Allies and reinforcements to help funnel the pinpricks of anger felt by overseas students across the globe into an organised channel that makes the University sit up and pay attention. Would this result in any tangible change? I am by now jaded enough to say probably not. But silence and invisibility cannot be how we respond to injustice, even injustice of the seemingly insurmountable variety.
In a few years, the international students who were at the University of Melbourne during COVID-19 will have graduated. The University will be back to promising prospective internationals a once-in-a-lifetime, coming-of-age experience. Our memory, and the memory of the University’s unjust silence at our impossible situation, will fade. I will then truly become as I now feel: a student who was never really a student—unimportant, non-existent, and invisible.