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How Australia’s hard borders crushed an international student’s dreams

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Winnie's frustrations echo thousands more off-shore students like her whose only avenue for expression thus far is through the hashtag #LetStudentBackToAus on Twitter. Source: Winnie

Australian borders have been closed for 500 days as of the time of writing. Since the entry bank took place on March 20, 2020, international students have been shut out with little clarity over their programme and futures.

For Winnie (name changed on request), a Cambodian student of the University of Technology Sydney, the impact of the Australian borders being shut has been crushing. So much so that she finds herself anxious, depressed and dropping out. Her frustrations echo thousands more off-shore students like her whose only avenue for expression thus far is through the hashtag #LetStudentsBackToAus on Twitter.

We caught up with Winnie to learn more about her decision dropping out, her suggestions on how to fix the Australian borders predicament and what she misses most about Sydney: 

What made you choose to study abroad in Australia?

Studying abroad has been one of my biggest dreams since I was in high school. I believe this experience will allow me to explore new and challenging opportunities and meet new people from all around the world. 

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“Studying abroad has been one of my biggest dreams since I was in high school,” she says. Source: Winnie

Also, the modern lifestyle of the people there has always convinced me to step my foot forward to a new level of education 1000 miles away from my home country.

What did you like most about studying in Australia?

I love how the city of Sydney allowed me to be myself more than I’ve ever been. I love the view, the cleanliness, the people, and the food. I love everything about Australia, especially Sydney, a magical city.

Tell us more about the challenges you face with the restrictions on Australian borders. What plans do you have now with your studies?

I’ve been waiting for months on end to be back in the country yet I don’t seem to see a green light with the Australian border restrictions. During my waiting, I’ve been dealing with anxiety and depression as I struggle to get back into the country.

I’m trying to get vaccinated in my country as soon as possible in hopes to be back faster. The news before the lockdown gave me so much hope but it’s been full of lies and false information. 

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“I love everything about Australia, especially Sydney, a magical city,” Winnie states. Source: Winnie

This has taken a toll on my mental health because studying online overseas has been so challenging in regards to the time zone difference and lack of support from my institution. My plan right now is to drop out first because I can’t afford to spend a fortune on my education. 

I will apply to be back in Australia once things are settled as a tourist or a student. Sometimes I dream of teleporting myself to Sydney because I miss it so much.

What more do you think should be done between the governments and institutions to support international students?

The governments should be working more on their quarantine facilities. For instance, Singapore has extended the hotel quarantine period to three weeks even with the vaccine. 

Also, they should look into building a national quarantine hub somewhere far away from the city. We all agreed to pay for these expenses and yet we still aren’t able to get back — a frustrating ordeal.

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“During my waiting, I’ve been dealing with anxiety and depression as I struggle to get back into the country,” she says. Source: Winnie

I believe institutions can’t wait to welcome us back because of the sharp decrease in the number of enrollments now. But they can’t follow through with actions due to the lack of federal government support with the Australian border restrictions.

I just hope the institutions can focus more on the students’ mental health over their tuition fees. 

Are there any memorable experiences there you can share with us?

My most memorable experience in Australia is having a group of international best friends from all over the world. We get along so well and love sharing our culture and traditions.

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“I will apply to be back in Australia once things are settled as a tourist or a student,” Winnie says as she eagerly awaits to hear back on news for international students in Australia. Source: Winnie

We usually hang out on weekends or after class to create a stronger bond between this multicultural group of friends. Even if our backgrounds are different we are all in the same boat. I miss all of my friends there — they are like the Powerpuff Girls (our group’s name).

Tell us more about your hometown.

If you came to visit Cambodia, I’d definitely take you to the amazing Angkor Wat Temple — the most significant ancient temple in the country. It was built by our ancient kings and the people of “Khmer” (an empire).

The temple is indescribably amazing because it’s the largest religious monument in the world. Angkor Wat has even been protected by UNESCO heritage.

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The amazing Angkor Wat Temple — the most significant ancient temple in the country where Winnie is from. It was built by their ancient kings and the people of “Khmer” (an empire). Source: Winnie

What’s the local food in Australia compared to home like? Tell us your most and least favourite.

I love the beef steak and Australian wine and the two combined is incredible. The least favourite for me is “Vegemite” (yeast extract food spread) but I don’t hate it — just dislike it.

What advice do you have for international students looking to study in Australia? 

My advice for other international students is to think very carefully whether you have the luxury to wait and deal with the Australian border restrictions. Because due to the current situation, it’s very hard to predict the opening and exact date to return. 

If you wish to study there just for the experience, I’d recommend finishing your bachelor’s degree in another country first and then apply to Australia for your postgraduate studies.