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International Students – talented, hard working and not Australia’s cash cows

I don’t quite remember how I felt when I first landed in Melbourne with my father. The pandemic, which feels like it’s lasted decades, has blurred my memories of leaving home three years ago. The precious memories I do recall, I treasure: a teary-eyed goodbye from my grandfather at the Delhi Airport and beautiful moments with my soon-to-be flatmates and their families when we first arrived.

After experiencing the most transformational 3 years of my life, most of which I spent without my core support network (my family, friends, and all the people I’d known before moving to Melbourne), I struggle to articulate just how resilient Australia’s international student community is and how proud I am to be a part of it.

It’s not complicated – humans like to travel

Sometimes I feel like I disappoint Australians when I don’t fit the traditional stereotypes and narratives that they’re familiar with like, ’coming to Australia for a better life.’ Those stories and lived experiences are important and valid, but it’s just not my story.

Contrary to (misguided) assumptions that have been regularly expressed to me by non-South Asian people, coming to study abroad was never a story of struggle for me, and there seems to be a deep lack of awareness that South Asians can choose to travel to places, like Australia, for positive reasons: out of curiosity, interest, or just because they want to. Not every migrant story is one of hardship.

Often these interactions go something like this:

“India’s rather conservative, did your parents object to you moving out of home at 23?”

“Actually, my parents encouraged me to move out at 18.” I’d say, visibly annoyed at answering questions like these which stemmed from zero understanding that in a place, like Australia, where so much diversity of thought and opinion exists in our communities, our workplaces and schools, that people aren’t aware this also exists in other countries and cultures.

Historically, people have been travelling for hundreds of years. The first British fleet arrived in Australia in 1788 and in India in 1608. Though, my Indian forefathers may argue that some of those travellers overstayed their welcome and exploited the lands and people that welcomed them (read: colonisation), a history that Australia is also familiar with.

I came to Australia to study in a new country, live abroad and, as cliched as this sounds, discover myself. My parents taught me that the world is my oyster, and with that in mind I set out to a country that didn’t seem embroiled in turmoil amidst rising right-wing extremism like in my home country and the rest of the world with Trump, Brexit and a myriad of other issues ravaging the rest of the world in 2019 on the other. I didn’t realise then that the worst was yet to come.

Everything I’d heard about Australia as a kid was from my Dad’s business visits, or from my best friend’s family in Sydney. It seemed like a relaxed place where people were mostly nice. That being said, my Indian relatives warned me about Australia’s racist history and racial attacks on Indian students but I’d made up my mind. I wanted to come to Melbourne, a liveable, less controversial and chilled out city. Naively, I thought blatant racism didn’t actually exist anymore, at least not in 2019.

I see things a bit differently now. I’ve come to understand racism exists, it just manifests itself covertly in micro-aggressions, like when I get comments about how my English is so good or disbelief when I acknowledge my privilege of having my family to pay for my education when people try to gauge how close I am to the stereotypical ‘Slumdog Millionaires’ that live in India.

We don’t want sympathy; we want equal treatment

During a discussion once, someone referred to their friend as an ‘expat’ working in India. By definition, expats are citizens of one country working in another country. Another friend of mine rightly pointed out in private that it’s ironic how when people of Anglo-Celtic and European backgrounds work in a ‘developing’ country, they’re referred to as ‘expats’.

I’m on a work visa in Australia currently and am constantly confused with being a ‘migrant’, and at times I found the term associated in more subtle undertones with being helpless, underpriviledged and who deserves sympathy. I won’t be lying when I say that how we use this terminology and distinguish who gets to be expats and migrants has more to do with the colour of someone’s skin and their birth country than literal definitions.

I profusely object to the unsolicited sympathy international students from developing countries get due to preconceived notions and stereotypes because no one asked for it. We don’t want sympathy; we want equal treatment because we’re worthy of it.

“Hell yeah, I am a freaking expat.” I told my friend when I pointed out this irony to her, claiming it with the same pride that people in reversed situations possess.

Sticking together when stranded in a global pandemic

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing some of the brightest, kindest and most hardworking people in the international student community in Melbourne. My friends and I would study hard, work hard, and party harder. They’re my family now and we’ve seen each other through our worst lows when the pandemic hit.

When the pandemic happened, many of us lost our part-time jobs and Prime Minister Scott Morrison told us to leave if we couldn’t support ourselves. I was infuriated. That we would be left stranded during a global crisis isn’t what I remembered universities mentioning when they came begging for enrolments in my country and boasted about how welcoming, multicultural and supportive to international students Australia is.

A lot of students were left worse off, unable to afford rent, food or other necessities and left completed unsupported. Many couldn’t even afford tickets back to their home countries or couldn’t travel because of closed borders. In the light of the worst crisis my generation has seen that took the world by storm, it seemed like no one was looking out for this community that otherwise is seen as a crucial part in sustaining Australia’s economy.

To add to that, racist incidents started increasing. Some of my Asian friends, like other international students of Asian heritage were attacked on the street because of the way they looked, and bigots found COVID-19 an easy excuse to unleash their violence and aggression.

While all of this was happening and we were trying to transition to remote learning, manage finances and take care of both our physical and mental health away from our loved ones, the tide began to change.

Premier Daniel Andrews announced a $45m relief package for Victoria’s international students and pointed out to the Federal Government that we were valuable and worthy of support.

 

“International students contribute over $12 billion to the Victorian economy every single year… If we don’t help support them, it won’t be just their education that suffers. More jobs will be lost, the hit to our economy will be bigger, and our recovery will take much longer. 

 

With that, it felt like suddenly the Federal Government flipped on their stance against us. It probably dawned upon them that they made a mistake of abandoning the community that brought in billions of dollars annually to one of Australia’s largest exports – education. The looming workforce shortages began to exacerbate when the international borders closed, and international students became the unsung heroes being fast-tracked, the ‘easy’ solution to fill in industries suffering big staffing crises.

My post-graduate work visa was suddenly extended so that Australia could attract new students and retain those already here to work and rebuild the economy. However, it only worsened our situation because we continued to be stuck in limbo with no certainty of permanent residency, no Medicare, low job prospects because of employer biases, exploitation and lower than minimum wages.

 

Australia is our home too

As international students, we pay twice as much in fees as domestic students in Australian universities, plus incur heavy taxes and get no benefits from the Government in return – such as no medicare, NDIS, or support payments like JobKeeper.

All we get are efforts to lure us into starting one degree after another, draining us of our savings in the promise of ‘one day’ offering us the opportunity to stay here permanently.

We have stayed back or left our homes to not only pay large sums of money to study here but have also massively contributed to the economy. There’s an added layer of pressure on international students to blend in and shed our own cultures and upbringing to be seen as ‘Aussie’ enough in the workplace, a challenge I struggle with in my role as a media consultant.

That being said, my experiences in Australia haven’t all been marred by this substandard, discriminatory treatment. Through meeting Australians, I’ve also had the pleasure of getting to know some of the most inspiring and welcoming people I’ve ever met and I’m so grateful to be in this is gorgeous country with its generous spirit and incredible multiculturalism.

I also acknowledge that I am on stolen land that was never ceded by traditional owners. There is a history of brutality, genocide and racism that continues to be deeply entrenched in Australia’s current political systems. All of us need to do our part by:

• supporting, listening to, working for and together with First Peoples;
• acknowledging their role as original inhabitants of the land;
• learning from their traditions and cultures and not allowing anyone to forget their story.

If you’re an international student and would like to do your part, you can start by Paying the Rent and supporting local First Nations-led businesses.

Australia is and always will be Aboriginal Land.

And on behalf of international students, I just want to remind decision-makers what they seem to have forgotten: we, international students, are humans. We are hardworking, talented, and worthy of so much more recognition than what we’re currently receiving. We’re not your instant labour force or cash cows for you to exploit when it’s convenient. Considering the benefits we bring to the Australian economy, it’s past time that more was done to make the international student experience worth the money we’re paying. Either way, we’ll be making a judgement on you and your treatment of us with our dollars, so it’d be in everyone’s best interest to get to work and make some changes.

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Yatha has spoken at events including the International Youth Media Conference, the National Youth Futures Summit and has commented for media publications including the Sydney Morning Herald. She also worked with the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism in a Global Program to prevent violent extremism among young people. Her passion for helping others and advocating for the vulnerable and marginalised groups is an inspiration. Read the full blog for Yatha’s insight into advocacy and leadership.

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Read the full blog to learn about Ana’s tireless efforts behind the scenes to bring about positive change to Australia’s media landscape.