2020 Reflection – A Decade of Transformation through International Education

Thomson Ch’ng
Thomson Ch’ng is an international speaker, youth diplomat and global education specialist.

I truly believe in the power of international education in transforming lives.

The late Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”. This quote has been one of my all time favourites. As an International Alumnus, I also believe that “International education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to transform lives globally”. 

I was born and raised in Butterworth, a little town located on the north-west coast of Malaysia, adjacent to the island of Penang. My parents supported our living through traditional small family business.

My late mum started a Western Style bakery in 1994 selling cakes and bread to the local community at Teluk Air Tawar – 3 mins away from where the Royal Malaysian Air Force Base Butterworth (RMAF Butterworth) is. This base has been of strategic importance since World War II, during which it was initially occupied by the Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) units.

Upon reflection, I have discovered that my connection with Australia goes back to the time when I was a child. I still have vague memories of my interactions with the RAAF officers who were on their posting in Butterworth. They were regular customers of our bakery.

2009 was my first year in Australia. As someone who has lost my mum and was suffering from depression, embarking on an international education journey was like hitting the reset button in my life.

First year in Australia was all about overcoming cultural and language barriers while surviving and thriving academically. Communication was particularly challenging for me and other international students whenever we encountered lecturers who have strong Australian accents. As someone with English as a third language, I knew that I needed to push myself out of my comfort zone to improve my reading, writing, speaking and listening in a language that I wasn’t comfortable with. Watching news and current affairs, reading daily newspapers and listening to the radio FM were my daily routine, in addition to revising study materials.

Lesson: Practice makes perfect. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes during your student days. The most valuable thing you can make is a mistake. It’s a form of learning. You can’t learn anything from being perfect.

A year later in 2010, I became active on student activities on campus. I believed that it was a way to enrich my experience and maximise the value of my time spent in Australia. I was elected as the Student Guild President of the then Navitas operated Curtin University Sydney campus. Through this capacity, I was connected to the Student Guild Executive Committee of the Curtin University Bentley main campus in Perth, Western Australia.

In July 2010, 80 international student leaders from across Australia gathered to establish Australia’s international student peak body – Council of International Students Australia (CISA) at the University of Tasmania in Hobart.

It was a three days of intense debate and discussion. The topics ranged from the very basics of finding a suitable organisation’s name to the big topics on key challenges and issues faced by international students, finally on how the constitution of an independently run national peak international student body would look like.

The scenes of working lunches over sandwiches and how friendships were built over this rare national gathering of international student leaders are still fresh in my memory.

Lesson: Seize the moment because some opportunities don’t come twice. As an international student leader at Curtin’s branch campus, I took further steps to reach out to my counterparts at Bentley campus in Perth. This has led to the opportunity to create history in Hobart.  

I then had the honour to be elected as the 2nd National Secretary of CISA in July 2011. The importance of the Secretary’s role was often being underestimated. The responsibility was huge. It ranges from membership engagement to internal communications and organisation governance. The organisation relies on the role of the Secretary to provide internal stability.

It was a challenge to manage both full time study load and student organisation’s work. There were thoughts on whether I should give up on my commitment with CISA. But the honour to serve had kept me going. Not only did I complete my full term with CISA towards the end, I also completed my Bachelor of Commerce (Finance & Management) successfully and was offered a scholarship to pursue a Master’s Degree.

My passion for supporting international students has led to the co-organising of Sydney’s inaugural employability forum for international students – “My Study, My Career” in 2013. It was held in conjunction with the City of Sydney’s Living in Harmony Festival – an annual event that celebrates cultural diversity.

In July 2013, I was honoured to be elected as CISA’s 4th National President at the National Conference & AGM and again in 2014. CISA was a big part of my student life. No doubt, there were challenges we have encountered as a team given how young and incredibly diverse the organisation was. But tolerance and acceptance towards one another, passion in putting the organisation’s and the community’s interest above individual’s interest has enabled us to work through some of the difficult moments.

Besides putting international student voice at the front and centre of the international education debate, some of our major advocacy “wins” included the Australian government’s decision to recognise more English language testing systems for the visa’s language requirement purposes to prevent further exploitation on international students’ language proficiency due to a single provider’s monopoly.

We were also joyful with the introduction of public transport discounted fares for international students by the Victorian and New South Wales state governments after years of advocacy. The discount scheme in New South Wales has since been removed following the introduction of the Opal Card system.

In 2014, the CISA executive team and I realised that we needed to do more to educate and empower our fellow international student representatives at the grass root level to ensure continuity and sustainability of advocacy knowledge. This has led to the initiation of CISATalk – a series of international student advocacy workshops across different states. Experts were invited to deliver training workshops for student representatives on various topics.

At the 5th National Conference, we were pleased to be addressed by a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and now State Counsellor of Myanmar Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. It was the first of its kind in the organisation’s history. Her speech was a massive encouragement for CISA as a young student-led organisation back then. She was also a great source of inspiration for the international student representatives who were present.

No doubt, the CISA Presidency was a very demanding role. Luckily for me as most of my classes were in the evenings. My day time was mainly spent on CISA affairs, including meetings with government and international education stakeholders. I spent my evenings and weekends catching up on my lectures and assignments.

I completed my Master of Science (Project Management) in early 2016. I was anticipating a relaxed time after graduation, only to realise that my addiction to creating positive impacts in the community has led to further engagements in various projects and activities locally and internationally.

The opportunity to represent the country and the region at some of the high profile international conferences was an honour. The opportunity also comes with invitations extended by close friends and acquaintances to visit schools in developing countries hoping for collaborations and better quality of life. The biggest take away from international engagements was to take concrete actions to contribute locally. Hence the slogan “Think Global, Act Local”.

But above all, I was particularly proud of the establishment of the ASEAN-Australia Education Dialogue (AAED), a track II education diplomacy platform that focuses on strengthening Australia’s relationship with Southeast Asia across higher education, vocational education and training, English language teaching and the school sectors.

It all started from that conversation at a lounge of the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, when Michael Fay, Roger Bendall and I discussed about the missing puzzle in the regional architecture of Australia’s education relationship with Southeast Asia.

AAED was successfully held in my home state of Penang in 2018 and again in 2019. In 2020, AAED was being held virtually as webinar series.

No doubt, 2020 has been an unusual year for the world. The probably once in a lifetime experience of lock-down in a modern post-war era, the constant reminders from authorities on the importance of self hygiene like never before, the urgent need of embracing digital technology in education and work life, the stay-at-home self-entertainment activities through social media hashtag movements, above all, the massive amount of losses in jobs and lives globally.

With the passing of an immediate family member due to illness and two other immediate family members having undergone medical surgery, 2020 has been a particularly tough year for me personally. But I have and will remain thankful to each and every single one of my family members and friends who have been an incredible part of this journey.

“I am a proud product of international education and will continue to be”.

I truly believe in the power of international education in transforming lives. This is why I am still committed to giving back to the community regardless of the circumstances. I would also like to urge my fellow international alumni to play a part in giving back to the community and more importantly, to make this world a better place.

Lesson: International education is more than just studying, living and working away from home.The word “International” means cross-border and cross-cultural understanding. The word “Education” refers to more than just the classroom or virtual classroom experience studying at an institution, but the overall personal growth shaped by the people we are surrounded with.

My biggest takeaway for 2020 – besides the urgent need to embrace digital technology such as Zoom and Webex, is the discovery of the true meaning of international education – the importance of embracing innovation, resilience and global citizenship.

This pandemic has taught us why global actions are important in this globalised era. We are not only citizens of our country, we are also citizens of the world.