Sweat and Sweet Being an International Student
By Suparto, a PhD student, Monash University
Early March 2003 was the onset of my life history living in Melbourne when I came alone to the ‘grey’ city of Melbourne. I cam for study at Monash University under the sponsorship of Australia-Asia Award. I think my feelings were just the same with that of other international students when they embarked at the first time on such a lonely place. I'd never dream to be a ‘Melbournian’. Adjusting myself to the exotic weather of Melbourne was little bit thorny, as I just realized that this city is indeed a heaven with four seasons in one day.
Melbourne is unlike Jakarta whose weather is warm and humid all the times. Yet, sooner I began to acclimatise myself to such a new environment and enjoyed often drastic climate changes. Natural climate is not that big deal as my body can easily fiddle with such a climate. Nonetheless, heaps of pitfalls were waiting for me at this fortress of intellectual training. In this short essay I would like to share my happiness and sorrow as an International student. So that why I put title “sweat and sweet being an international student” for this article.
It is my second stay in Australia. In 1999 to 2000 I lived in Adelaide doing my masters at Flinders University which financially was supported by ADS. Living in Melbourne was quite new experience for me. It was then I had to learn to adjust my life with the academic climate in Monash University. In the beginning, I did not know what I should do as a new PhD student at the School of Education in Clayton campus. On the first week I just wandered and strolled around the campus by my own, tried to familiarise with the buildings and facilities.
found it was quite stunning and interesting, since the campus provides whole range of facilities for various students. Religious facilities are also provided for multi-faith students. I saw a Muslim prayer room at the Religious Center is available for Muslim students. The Beddoe ‘mosque’ is located in the end north-west of campus just close to the parking area. Booklets on Islam and halal food were also available at the administration building; the information was very informative and helpful for me as a new Muslim student. I did not find any serious problem in conducting my belief and ritual activities.
Being a PhD student, I had to admit that my life activity is considered as a twenty-four hour and seven day a week activity. I found no holiday at all, as times are so demanding and critical. Clock is ticking so preciously. Thanks to Monash University which provides 24 hour access to a student like me. There is no word “finish” after seeing my supervisor, as one task will always come after another. For example, after having discussion and receiving my supervisor's feedbacks I have to think of doing another thing. Days were always full of reading and writing. When I was getting stuck and being trapped within the cage of nowhere, I questioned myself as to why my mind just went idle and was empty of creativity. In this condition, I was so gloomy.
It was often desperate when I had to devour books that full of difficult words and discussion. I know it was due to my shortages and lacks of reading ability. When I was cornered by this reality, I felt so frustrated and poignant. In addition, I felt flummoxed as to the direction of my study. Sometimes I pushed myself to do something even writing a tiny peace of paragraph. But, I plunged myself into a point of darkness when sitting in front of the computer. My mind was lying idle and was not able to capture ideas let alone pushed them out from the head. In this frustrating situation, I emailed my supervisor about my obscurity in a hope that I could release myself from such a giddy situation. Additionally, meeting with my supervisor was quite impressive.
I found the relationships between students and supervisors are no more than an ‘academic-friendship’. Discussion took place in informal way and there was no such an imposing ideas to me from my supervisor. I always found ideas were offered and suggested. The last decision was laid in my mind whether I accepted them or otherwise. Although it was deemed as an ‘academic-friendship’, be punctual and self disciplined was a must if I had to finish on time. Clearly, in such a friendly atmosphere of discussion I felt very much welcome in this campus. In short, I felt free from daunting burdens for a while.
To lessen the burdens of academic problems I tried to share with my friends in the office and consult with my supervisor. I believed my problems were just the same as other international students'. I needed to hear other people’s experiences when they ran into academic problems. Having nice friends was very beneficial and rewarding in terms of building self-esteem and confidence, not to mention forcing myself to practice my conversation skill in a friendly informal discussion. Sometimes we went to the cafés within the campus just for having refreshing mind and fresh air.
In terms of writing up my thesis, I found that the more I wrote, the more I did not know; the more I read, the more I felt dummy. It was like diving in a deep and dark ocean where I had to portray a clear picture of what I was attempting to unravel. Not only did I explore information from various literatures, but I was also pushed to use my critical capacity in digesting such information. Like many other Asian students, I did not use to criticize and disagree openly against other people’s opinion, particularly those who were considered as knowledgeable people. I considered the authors from whom I borrow their ideas and my supervisor with whom I always discussed on my study as the knowledgeable people that ought to be respected. Criticizing them was seen culturally impolite and ethically unaccepted.
It indeed took times to be critical. I was told that to be critical, one should apply a negative thinking on everything and try to question on all phenomena.
Sharing our thoughts can also be carried out in formal forums, such as conferences and seminars. Through the financial support of University’s travel grant scheme, I was able to attend and present my work at some occasions, such as national conference at the University of Queensland, Indonesian Conference at ANU, Post-Graduate Conference at Curtin University, International Symposium in Jakarta, International conference in Chiang Mai and the like. Monash is so generous in supporting students to disseminate their findings and work to a wider community inside and outside campus. The forums were very useful in building networks of intellectual and having feedbacks and appreciations from various people.
While I was struggling for the thesis writing-up, I suffered from ‘home-sweet-home’ syndrome. Admittedly, the problem encountered was not only stemming from academic arena, but also from the socio-psychological needs. I had to admit that I was often in need to eliminate my loneliness; I did not want to be only confined to my office and working in front of the computer. I needed a social activity to refresh my mind and just to escape for a while from my hurly burly study.
Fortunately, the Faculty of Education always organized student trips every semester and informal afternoon tea with other International students every first Wednesday on each month. I considered these activities were a means of student socialization and building friendships among International students. I still remembered that my first trip was going to the Great Ocean Road. I was very much delighted as this trip was not exclusively for a particular group of International scholarship students or a specific nation.
To develop more ‘socialization’ atmosphere, actually I need a kind of morning or afternoon tea forum in which students and staff could gather and know each other. Unfortunately, up to the present day, I could hardly recognize the names of the staff although there is a board of photos of the staff members displayed in the faculty's foyer, but for me it is no more than a gallery. I only know the names of few friendly faces in the faculty and of course my supervisor's.
Socially and culturally, Monash University is rich of cultural diversity. Student centre is evidence where food is not dominated by Aussie food. Likely, I met some Indonesian students and was involved in MIIS (Monash Indonesian Islamic Society) in which I could enjoy my home-country atmosphere, since this organisation invited monthly gathering to have discussion and taste Indonesian food! Fortunately, I also met some Indonesian elders who have been residing in Australia for many years. It is remarkably noticeable that the Indonesian students and the Indonesian permanent residents in Melbourne could cooperate in strengthening the Indonesian community in Australia.
Perwira and Ikawiria are two social organizations for Indonesian people in Melbourne. Westall mosque is Indonesian Muslim venue where Indonesian Muslims find mosque with Indonesian flavor. Spiritual attachment to the home country is very evident, especially when the most appalling Tsunami disaster hit Aceh. In Melbourne, Indonesians and other communities were hand in hand to collect donations to help the most victimized of Acehnese. To sum up, living in Australia does not mean that we are only busy with academic and campus lives, but life should not ignore our social activities either in campus or outside campus.