Every night on the news we’re reminded to keep our distance, leaders accuse each other across borders and we’re all wondering when we’ll ever get to cross them again. At UTS, I’m seeing lines crossed every day (across culture, age, gender, and profession) as students and staff connect through the HELPS speaking programs. These programs were set up to support international students with their language fluency but have become so much more.

I’m glad someone reached out to me. Thank you for your kindness.

International student

Buddy Program

In the Buddy Program, where conversation practice takes place online each week, UTS buddies swap recipes, movie links and family photos – and if new to Australia, get a glimpse into our lounge rooms and can even meet family pets. International students often apologise for their English and volunteers rush to let them know it’s totally fine, ‘This is a no judgement zone.’

Since moving online, more than 250 people have joined in the conversation, including a growing number of UTS staff. There’s been a student in China zooming with a student here in Sydney who wants to learn Mandarin, while another connects to China but only via messaging. And yet, she says, ‘We have established a really amazing friendship, I’m so thankful to this program for opening up opportunities to meet such lovely people.’ Recently, an Emeritus Professor has been comparing research experience with an Iranian engineer while a UTS alumni trades English for Japanese. And a young Aussie girl matched with an older Peruvian male student now hopes to travel to Peru, sharing, ‘At first I admit I was a little judgemental but now I have made a friend for life.’

Conversation Groups

The groups run morning and afternoon so students can drop in anytime and meet more people. Volunteers say they get just as much back as they offer. According to one, ‘These sessions are the highlight of my week. They enhance my positive mood as well, so I really think they give back to me just as much as I give them.’

Here’s a snapshot from some recent conversation groups:

  • A student from Jordan is currently juggling a PhD and small children – she has no webcam but plays us her call to prayer and reminisces about the ancient city of Petra.
  • A student from Burma shares her lifelong experience with meditation while a Chinese business student wows us with his exercise regime, earning the nickname ‘200 pushups’.
  • One student spent two weeks isolating in Thailand then another two weeks here, mostly alone.
  • Another recently returned to China to appease his parents – he doesn’t say much but we all hear his quiet, ‘I miss my University.’

Learning new vocabulary is always appreciated. In conversations we move from the absurdity of words like ‘bogan’ to finding the right advice for a student who recently lost someone overseas: ‘Sorry for your loss.’ Everyone cheers up after meeting new friends in the breakout rooms and seeing the same people return each week prompts compliments about hair, clothes and virtual backgrounds.

It is a rare privilege and we are looking forward to the face to face meeting after the lockdown has been lifted.

International student

No-one is talking heavy politics or economic concerns, even though these issues are regularly discussed in the media – whether it’s about missing out on job keeper, the importance of their fees, their reasons for staying in Australia or going home, or a discussion about how and why COVID-19 spread – this is a safe space to talk. One Chinese student recently reacted to a comment another made, which gave us all a chance to reflect on our various media filters and the importance of what we say and how we say it.

Cross-cultural connection and global citizenship starts right here in these small conversations. It also gives us all a nice break from our weird new working week and a chance to just be together and chat!

Interested in joining? Sign up for the Buddy Program or email maryann.mcdonald@uts.edu.au to join the conversation groups.
For more information on volunteering or promotion to international students, visit HELPS.

Photo by Hannah Rodrigo on Unsplash

  • Thanks for all your hard work with setting up this program MaryAnn…as an academic volunteer for the Conversations@UTS HELPS my comment: ‘These sessions are the highlight of my week. They enhance my positive mood as well, so I really think they give back to me just as much as I give them’ is true today as it was in the earlier weeks.
    Congratulations UTS in providing programs such as these connecting students with mentors/academics/other students. It is so important for everyone especially during these challenging times to feel connected in some way or another. The sessions are fun and it has been an opportunity for me to meet students from other degrees and learning from them! Looking forward to my next session @Conversations (keeping up with Australian Trivia and International foods !)

    • Cherie – it’s thanks to volunteers like you that the programs are able to make such a difference. And my great pleasure to meet you all!

  • Thanks MaryAnn for such an eloquent expression of the way communicating with others is a fundamental need and pleasure for us all, with the potential to cross all borders and barriers whatever our backgrounds and experience. I’m so proud of this HELPS program.

  • These activities are more important than ever now as loneliness is very common. Great way to keep safe and make connections

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