Parallel world for international students

By Meg Hill

International students make up a significant portion of the City of Melbourne’s (CoM) population, but research suggests a kind of informal segregation with the rest of the community.

The CoM’s most recent statistic (2016) recorded 46,778 international students studying and 28,530 living in the area.

The number of international student residents made up 21 per cent of the total CoM population in 2016. The CBD, Docklands and Southbank all have high numbers of international student residents.

Associate Professor Catherine Gomes said there were a number of issues that confined international students to a “parallel world”.

“They face different forms of shock – culture, language, living on their own. For many it’s the first time they’ve left their families,” she said.

“They need to find support structures and social networks for support, but also to make everyday life bearable.”

“They often feel domestic students don’t want to know them, or they feel like domestic students already have their own friends and social circles.”

Combined with those elements is the structure of an international student’s life, which itself often inhibits integration.

“You go to classes where all the students are international students, your first friends are international students and all their friends are international students,” Prof Gomes said.

The self-perpetuating process also involves international students flowing into the same residential spaces as each other.

“The idea is that if you live in the city, it’s convenient and safer. They don’t need to take public transport or drive. It seems better in terms of safety, especially for the parents whose kids are living in another country.”

But The Age reported as far back as 2007 that international students were often being streamlined into expensive city apartments, populated mostly by other international students, by overseas agencies.

Masamune Chifu, a 26-year-old international student from Japan, said he found his residence in the city through an international agent, and lives with others from Japan, India, Bangladesh and Korea.

Mr Chifu is studying English and hospitality courses. His classes exclusively comprise international students.

“My visa is a working holiday visa, so I can only study here for a maximum of four months, but my English isn’t good enough to get a job yet,” he said.

He said that a factor that may also be contributing to integration issues was hyper-exploitation of international students and workers.

“They can pay us less because we’re desperate,” he said.

A report by the Migrant Worker Justice Initiative released in November 2017 revealed that 43 per cent of international students working in Australia were significantly underpaid.

All this can be further complicated for those international students already vulnerable because of, for example, their sexuality or gender identity.

“One area of international student mental health and well-being that is lagging behind is support for the LGBTQI+ community,” said Rainbow Connections founder and academic coordinator Tegan McCarthy.

Rainbow Connections is a social welfare program for LGBTQI+ international students.

“Most institutions have a ‘queer community’ or ‘gay and lesbian support group’ but these are often inaccessible to international students due to cultural and language barriers,” Ms McCarthy said.

“They are so heavily steeped in language that is quite modern with lots of acronyms, many international students who speak English as their second language would actually have no idea what this means or how it relates to them.”

“There’s also the issue for international students who aren’t or can’t be ‘out’ back home for whatever reason – their time in Australia may be the only time in their lives where they can safely be themselves and explore their gender identity and sexuality.”

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