Maryam Kathawala (née Kapasi) is a former postgraduate student at Murdoch University in Perth, WA. Beginning in 2019, she pursued an MBA specialising in People Management and enrolled in the university’s Embedded Learning and Study (ELAS) program, a peer-to-peer initiative designed to support international students in their academic transition. Her efforts in the program were recognised by the Council for International Students, Western Australia who awarded her and fellow ELAS leaders the ‘WA International Education Program of 2020’ award.
In this interview, Maryam reflects on her journey as an international student and her role as a bridge between students of different backgrounds at the university.
- When you arrived in Australia to study, there must have been a lot of change that happened in your life. Were you prepared for this change?
Yes, there were many important changes socially and culturally which were challenging to me. However, I overcame those changes in a very short period of time. Apart from that, I did know at the back of my mind the challenges that were on their way in terms of studying at an international university with a different set of environs and standards and I was somewhat mentally prepared for them.
- What was the most significant change?
The University education system was diversified and experiential rather than following the norm of merely attending traditional lectures and writing examinations. Even the assessments were multifaceted which included interactive class activities, role plays, interviews and a lot more.
- What are the misconceptions about international students coming to study abroad?
Being incompetant in spoken English is a typical stereotype. Although English is the second language for many, they cope well and gradually acquire the desired level of spoken English for effective communication.
- Whom did you look up to and seek advice from?
To be fair, seeking advice at the start was intimidating. As I got familiar with the faculty and made friends, there were a few from whom I sought timely advice on my studies. Especially the academic chair, who always provided me with important insights on my academics. Apart from them, my husband and my family always had my back in any and all situations I came across throughout my studies.
- What convinced you to join the ELAS program?
During the first semester, due to inadequate information, I was lagging behind in a few academic activities which resulted in me missing out on a few important academic events. This was a common issue amongst international students who usually lacked proper guidance in the starting semesters. All I desired was to provide a little help by highlighting relevant information and sharing experiences with them to help them cope with their studies.
- Tell us more about the program in general and your role in it in particular.
The ELAS program is a peer-to-peer initiative for commencing international postgraduate students, designed to support their transition into studies in Australia. It can be challenging for an international student to move into a new country and study especially while fulfilling the high academic expectations of the university. Therefore, this program was introduced to discuss such challenges and bring about meaningful solutions. I was part of the program for 3 semesters as an ELAS leader.
The program sessions were designed uniquely as per the academic requisites of each semester. ELAS has been through many changes since I joined. In my first semester as an ELAS leader, we were asked to conduct a detailed program with guidance on writing academic papers and assignments along with referencing, usage of the tools that were provided by the university such as software, working with LMS (the university’s learning management system), using library services and other miscellaneous tools.
During my second and third semester as ELAS leader, the program concentrated on highlighting the lesser acknowledged but significant features of the university. It emphasised on the various services that the university provides to international students along with an update about developing departments and important upcoming events, etc.
This program was successful because the information and experiences that were shared through it helped students relate it with their academic life and acknowledge all the necessary dos and don’ts. The program was introduced as part of a class unit course on communication skills which was mandatory for all international students and helped us reach out to a large segment of international students.
- What were the highlights of the role you played as an ELAS leader?
I was supposed to be a mentor to the students who sought counsel on their academics or any other issues related to the university. I talked with the students and motivated them to overcome their issues and challenges. The counselling sessions included groups and individuals alike.
Lockdown was a very critical time as international students had to wade through unchartered territory and adapt to new ways of learning. During these unprecedented times, ELAS was functioning as it was before, albeit on a digital platform. We were planning out every session to answer as many queries about online learning, submission of assessment, importance of attending lectures and tutorials, whom to get in touch with when in need of help, etc.
Every day a new piece of instruction would be published on the university website. We had to acclimatise ourselves with the university’s online software along with other academics so as to take the sessions effectively. Pre and post sessions meetings would be conducted to discuss issues and the minutes were forwarded to the management who would then form policies accordingly.
- Has ELAS been successful in fostering an environment of multiculturalism?
Yes, without a doubt. The program certainly reflected the university’s core principle of promoting multiculturalism in all aspects of academia. The city of Perth itself is renowned globally for its hospitality towards diverse multicultural communities and especially students who come here to pursue their studies from all around the globe.
As a matter of fact, to a certain extent, ELAS is responsible for addressing and solving student issues in order to maintain and foster multiculturalism in the university. The main role of ELAS is to bridge the gaps between students from different backgrounds, nationalities, communities and more. It paved a way for all of them to connect and share their experiences, challenges, solutions and much more.
- How does the university play a role in making sure that international students feel comfortable and perform up to the mark?
The university offers different services including counselling programs, career advice, peer programs, library services, organisation of cultural events, health camps, sports events, discount sales, etc. It has even launched an online platform to keep in touch with students and faculty for real-time updates and communication purposes.
During the Covid-19 lockdown, the university availed laptops, internet data vouchers, grocery coupons and more to help eligible international students who were highly affected due to the pandemic.
- Why do you think students coming from overseas require a program such as this?
Primarily, it’s a change of social and cultural environment. Most international students experience nervousness and hesitation to directly share their issues to total strangers. Moreover, most of them are all alone with no family which at times leads to home sickness. Many students also cope with the financial burden of their studies. All this with the regular pressure of studies, scoring good grades and peer pressure adds up to worsen the situations. To tackle these issues, programs like ELAS are certainly required.
- How has this program helped you develop leadership skills?
ELAS gave me the confidence to talk in front of strangers. When I was in my role I was natural; there was nothing scripted or prepared. It all came naturally as we talked about various issues. I had to keep a very positive attitude because sometimes while talking about study issues we came across sensitive issues that were not supposed to be addressed by us.
- Currently, you are employed, but do you see yourself playing a similar role in the future?
If I ever get a similar opportunity, I will never miss it. The experience being an ELAS leader was very different and unique. I felt proud being an ELAS leader.
- What are the three most important pieces of advice you would give to a student aspiring to study in an international environment?
- Never miss an opportunity thinking that you are not eligible for it.
- Being an international student, try to connect with other students so that you are aware about events happening around you. Every bit of information is significant: if not relevant to you, it might be useful to fellow students.
- Always try to ask or raise your concern. Your academics are the best persons to talk with in case you have any queries or concerns. They are indeed the best people to approach for further advice.