International student life in Australia: can you have your academic cake and eat it?

Melissa talks to Soo-Jae Lee from Korea, studying Commerce/Law at Sydney University, about juggling the competing demands of student life. Is it possible for international students to achieve the dual goals of the student experience - a bustling social and extra-curricular life with good grades to boot - all the while battling language barriers and culture shock?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that international students come to Australia for one of two things: to party in a land of golden beaches, balmy nights, and a legal drinking age lower than most of our English-speaking comrades enjoy across the seas; or to hit the books in internationally-renowned institutions offering abundant enrolment opportunities for foreigners. These divergent objectives have often proven incompatible for international students. Many are swept up in an eternal string of college nights, house parties, and pubs offering student discounts, never to attend a lecture before midday again. At the other end of the spectrum, students struggling with the language and intent on scoring grades are often forced to make better friends with their text books than with their peers. But are these experiences necessarily mutually exclusive? Is there a way for the international student to have their academic apple and eat it too? I hit the University of Sydney, home to culturally-diverse clubs, societies and festivals and International Student House, in search of stories from the students themselves.

Soaking up the sun on the law lawns I found Soo-Jae Lee, born in Korea and undergoing a combined Commerce/Law degree. Having completed part of his high school education in North America, Soo-Jae is a veteran of the international student lifestyle. Soo-Jae is a lively personality within the law faculty, friendly with his fellow international students and long term Sydneysiders alike. But this camaraderie has often required as much hard work as passing Contract Law or Accounting, and he says he has come a long way from a relatively lonely experience in the USA. “The experience I had in America helped me,” recalls Soo-Jae, reminiscing on the difficulties he had adapting to a new culture and bridging a language barrier. “I felt like I shouldn’t stay like that forever.” And so he went on a friend-making mission more remorseless than Tony Abbott in budgie smugglers; approaching peers in his lectures, embarking on First Year law camp, even skipping classes to attend the events of the 17 different clubs and societies he signed up for. “It’s really hard to make friends if you’re not proactive,” says Soo-Jae. “You have to be a little bit shameless.”

While he may have neglected his studies in the initial stages of the mission to acquire a social life beyond , Soo-Jae found that in the long-run his grades reaped the benefits of a more balanced lifestyle. His new Australian friends were surprisingly willing to help him with his uni work, checking his spelling and grammar in essays and joining him for stuvac study sessions.

After forging a middle path between the rival territories of social and study, Soo-Jae is inspired to help other international students adapt to life in Australia. In 2010 he founded Sydney University’s International Student Networking Society, which enjoys a spread of members, some who originate from across the seas, others born and bred by the sea at Bondi. The society hosts two major parties every semester, where Soo-Jae links up his international friends with the domestic contacts he has made. They’ve also held language forums which have proven popular with both locals and foreigners alike, offering classes in both English and Chinese. By offering benefits to both local and international students, the society provides a way to facilitate friendships on equal footing.

Soo-Jae is fortunate to have had a practice run at international student life, a lonely experience teaching him the necessity of social pragmatism. For the brave international student, prepared to dive head-first into their new surroundings, opportunities abound. But for many, the idea of making the first move to forge friendships flips stomachs more vigorously than the looming end of semester exams. Hopefully initiatives like the International Student Networking Society will continue to crop up to make the task a little easier, as Australian Universities - and Australian society for that matter - develop an increasing appreciation of our international students.