Learning from International Students

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As with any learning experience, there comes a point when things begin to make sense. You begin to identify what you don’t know and where you can go to find the help you need.

The reflection of two international student studying in Australia, explores an interesting perspective to learning in a multi-pressure situation...

We catch up with the International Masters Occupational Therapy students who are currently five (5) weeks into their final placement. Catherine wrote a piece after just 2 weeks of her placement, which explored how Being Brave was so important to making the most of learning opportunities.

Now, Catherine and Ash team up to write a piece which shares the important hints & tips that have helped them make the most of new learning.

Time goes by so fast when you put yourself into something. We can’t believe we’ve already been at Early Links for five weeks. Compared with the first few weeks, we have started to play a more active role in therapy sessions with children and practicing using our knowledge and reasoning skills. To be honest, every day we have encountered a new personal challenge. We can’t wait to share more about our placement experience with you. However, in this blog, we would like to pause and talk about some tips and hints which may help other international students adjust to their life in Australia as soon as possible. This is important because the more we practice, the more we realise that if we want to be Australian Occupational Therapists. We have had to explore the Australian culture and be a part of it, which is an important foundation for interacting with clients and co-workers.

While this Blog has hints & tips for international students, I believe much of this information also speaks to the families and clients we work with at Early Links. The new learning we ask our clients to explore to better understand their challenges and be a part of finding the solution that is right for them. Being able to explore the learning mindset required.  

From Catherine...

As I mentioned in my last blog, coming to a new country alone is not an easy journey and so I’ve developed my own strategies to deal with the stress and loneliness. For example, at campus, I tend to spend more time with my Chinese friends who are also international students. I don’t have any local friends and have few interactions with local classmates unless we are in the same group for tutorials or assignments. Off campus, I live in a suburb where Chinese elements are all over the place. There are many Chinese restaurants and shops in this area and it’s okay to live without speaking a word of English. Even my flatmates and landlord are Chinese as well. As a result, I’m living in my comfort-zone where I’m isolated from the English environment and Australian culture. Sometimes I have a feeling that I’m still in my home country, and I’m just attending a university that uses a foreign language. However, I have to admit that although setting up my life in Australia with all these strategies has helped me to limit my stress, it’s not really helping me to be ready to live and work in Australia. Therefore, I hope other international students can learn a lesson from my experience and take any opportunities to practice English (if English is their second language) and explore all the wonderful differences between Australia and their home country.

The recent changes we have decided to make in order to be ready to live in Australia include tips that we’ve collected from our placement supervisors and mentors from the university -

  1. Live with local family or flatmates in an area where you have few opportunities to speak your mother tongue.

  2. Build a social network with native English speakers (at school or in the community).

  3. Join at least one or two interests groups or clubs, and attend some volunteer activities if you can.

  4. Watch or listen to local news, get familiar with local popular people and events.

  5. Change the language of your electronic devices (e.g. phone, laptop, ipad) from your language to English.

If you have particular interest in improving your English:

  1. Find language exchange partners (e.g. meetup.com).

  2. Use phone apps (search for “learn English”).

  3. Visit English learning website (e.g. breakingnewsenglish.com).

  4. Search “occupational therapy” on YouTube, listen and write down what they say on the videos, speak and record your voice to compare and practice your tone and pronunciation.

  5. Find a fun activity to practice English (e.g. read an English novel or watch English TV shows).

  6. Find help from the university (e.g. free weekly English classes from learning centre).

From Ash...

I first came to Australia six years ago when I was 18 years old. I was born and lived in South Africa up until 2009, before things began to change. Around 2007 my father was motivated to explore other ‘options’ for places to live where we could be safer, feel more secure, and invest in an internationally recognised tertiary education for my younger sister and myself. I worked very hard in my final year at school and in January 2010, I had a monumental choice to make - study in a familiar place, surrounded by people I know and love, or pick up my whole life and move to a new country and start all over again. Option B it was.

From receiving my offer to study at The University of Sydney in 2010, I had six days to pack my bags and say my goodbyes. I didn’t know anyone and didn’t know much about Australia at all. I found it both exciting and daunting to begin this next chapter of my life in a completely new environment with different cultures, social norms and expectations that what I am used to. English is my first language so I didn’t have a language barrier, however, the Australian slang and some words were rather new to me and took time for me to get used to. I knew that it was important to get to know people and to try to get comfortable with small things like walking down the street. Where I come from, walking anywhere was not an option for safety reasons. An encounter I will never forget was with a lecturer for my degree program during my two-week international student orientation class. I was the only international student to turn up for this information session and I was fortunate to have met someone with whom I have built a lasting professional relationship with, as well as a wonderful friendship.

One of the hardest things for me during my first year in Sydney was being separated from my family. By the end of the first year, I was lucky enough to have my mother, father and sister also in the country. Not having them around in the early days motivated me to try to get to know people and make some friends. Initially it was tricky because my background is a bit different and I found that many people here didn’t have an accurate understanding of what South Africa and Africa in general is like and so finding things in common with my peers was hard. I was asked the strangest questions about having wild animals living in my backyard and whether or not I rode an elephant to school each day. I had to continually describe my home country to people which did help in forming friendships but also made me miss my home. In tutorials I tried to get to know people and showed interest in working with them on assignments. I met people from other different backgrounds too which helped me to not feel alone a lot of the time. I knew I was not the only one to start fresh in a new place.

I believe that Ash’s experience highlights the isolation that is often felt but not often seen. We all, at some stage feel it, that feeling of not belonging to the group of people we surround ourselves with on a daily basis. The people who we would love to connect with, love for them to understand your inner most fears, share a respect  for your deepest most desires and relate to the life you imagine you could be living. Does that sound familiar?  Have you ever wished that you understood the world of doctor, appointments and school meetings, all with their own unique language and customs?

During the international orientation before classes started, there was an academic writing workshop and where we learned what referencing at university level meant and how to use the university’s library facilities to find journal articles and books. This workshop was very helpful and gave us an idea of what to expect in our classes. The university website was also particularly helpful at the time - we found the faculty’s page with the assignment cover sheets and other relevant forms that we would need as well as a structured breakdown of the Occupational Therapy degree and what subjects that would be covered during year. This was a helpful starting point and we have suggested to our Australian peers, in particular first year students, that the website is a great place to start when looking for information.

From Ash...

It took me quite some time to gather up the courage to ask my lecturers questions. I found this very daunting to begin with. I preferred to ask questions after class or over email and my lecturers were very receptive to that. I also found that the university’s LMS site and MyUni were invaluable websites to visit at least every day. Once I knew where all the information was, it was much easier to navigate my way through my studies. I also met and got to know my faculty administrator who has been very kind and helpful over the last six years in answering questions and pointing me in the right direction.

Here are some pieces of advice I can offer based on my experience as an international student (for one year) and over the last six years:

  1. Make the most of every opportunity - attend the orientation sessions on offer, library tutorials, campus tours, computer lab orientation, writing workshops… the list goes on. You never know who you’ll meet and how valuable that meeting could be.

  2. Make an effort to get to know your teachers and class peers - there will be many group assignments to come and you’ll need referees for your resume. I found that making friends with people from different ethnic backgrounds and countries helped me to become for familiar with different cultures as well.

  3. Find out about the university’s information systems - e.g. LMS, MyUni, the website etc and what information is on what site. LMS was used for the units of study (subjects) and the MyUni was used for timetables, finances, etc.

  4. If in doubt, ask. Be it a peer, a teacher, a library staff member - anyone. One of the biggest things I learned was to ask when I wasn’t sure because otherwise I wouldn’t find something out. The student centre is also a good place to start if you have questions.

  5. Join a peer mentoring program to learn from students who have done similar subjects.

  6. For second-language English students - find out about workshops for English language skills on offer from the Learning Centre and practice with peers as much as you can.

The advice I would offer to families, who have found themselves in a similar situation, where they feel isolated and confused by the environment and the expectations that surround them in the healthcare system is this…

  1. Talk to someone about your experiences - your family, your friends

  2. Read what you can from sources that are reviewed regularly by healthcare professionals

  3. Find other people in a similar situation

I’d like to offer you several opportunities to access that type of support - The Team at Early Links offers a complimentary “quick chat” for anyone looking for a new perspective on the challenges they face in their daily life. We also have a Sip&Share catch-up and a Community SHOUT-out which I would invite you to explore further.

Students in Occupational Therapy may also be interested in our Personal Mentoring Program which runs year-round for all students and professionals looking to give more value to others by investing in their own learning.