Scholars in Australia meet virtually to discuss personal wellbeing
Posted: 28 July 2020
Eighty Australia Awards scholars from South and West Asia enthusiastically took part in a virtual meeting on 13 and 20 May. The meeting was conducted across two separate days to accommodate the large number of participants.
The primary agenda for the meeting was to provide the scholars with a space to connect and check in with one another during the physical isolation of the first COVID-19 lockdown. The meeting gave attendees an opportunity to socially interact with scholars from different countries and studying in different parts of Australia, and ask each other questions about their personal and professional lives.
Julia Niblett, Assistant Secretary, South Asia Branch for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (and former High Commissioner to Bangladesh), attended the second day of the meeting and shared words of encouragement with the scholars.
“I am so very happy to meet with you virtually,” Julia said. “COVID-19 has brought us new challenges in every country, in all walks of life, for communities, for families and for individuals. I want you to know that you are not facing these challenges alone.” She commended the virtual meeting, adding, “The engagement we see here today is an example of how we can support each other.”
She acknowledged the difficulties of scholars who are having to stay far away from their families at this time. “You, as Scholarship holders, have to work doubly hard to stay positive; you have to find new ways to engage with your studies and stay engaged with your family and your friends,” Julia said. “This virtual engagement, which is quite new for many of us, requires a lot more patience, planning and resilience, and a bit of innovation to work out how we can connect.”
Julia emphasised the importance of creating and maintaining meaningful connections through challenging times. “I want you to nurture the links that you have made in Australia,” she said to the scholars. “Look out for new ways to establish connections with people through the remainder of your Scholarship. Whether you have newly arrived or been in Australia for a while, you must nurture the links that you have made and develop new ones. I know that you have the tools to turn these links into lifelong networks of support and inspiration.”
Julia also spoke about finding hope and a renewed sense of purpose.
“While we have had to learn to be more adaptable in these months, we will help you to not lose sight of the primary purpose of your Scholarship,” she said. “That is: to become strong, empathetic and energised leaders who are well equipped to make a positive difference in your community, country and the region, when you return home.”
The virtual meeting was centred around the theme of personal wellbeing. Facilitated by the Australia Awards – South and West Asia team in Australia, each day of the meeting began with a welcome address, after which one scholar from each state shared their updates. Scholars from Bhutan, Bangladesh, India, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka spoke about the restrictions in their states, updates from their university and international student communities, and stories from their everyday life.
Piumi Gamanayake from Sri Lanka said, “At times remote studying has been challenging, and we have had to adapt to it.” She added that “there [have] been a lot of resources made available to us, so we don’t have to go through this challenging period alone. This includes study support, peer mentoring, student clubs and societies, social media groups, [and] webinars from Australia Awards and our institutions.” For her, what worked well was to reach out and use all of the available resources.
In order to register their interest in attending the virtual meeting, scholars had answered questions about personal health and wellbeing. In the second part of the virtual meeting, scholars were invited to share their answers and related experiences.
Many scholars, in response to a question asking them to name one thing they have been doing to take care of themselves during physical isolation, agreed on the importance of staying in touch with family and friends over social media and virtual platforms. As further examples, some spoke at the meeting about using exercise, yoga, mindfulness and meditation as ways to relieve stress, while others shared their experience with the online counselling services provided by their institutions.
Prakash Das, a scholar from Nepal currently residing in South Australia, shared his experience of accessing some of the health and counselling services provided by his university. For him, in the beginning, the changes brought about by COVID-19 were all too unpredictable and thus stressful.
However, the university support services helped him to cope. Prakash says that the counsellors and support staff “were very nice and directed me to some simple tools that I could use to practice mindfulness and to set up my study timetable”. After a month of taking the necessary actions, he has adapted to the situation and is now managing well.
“Receiving support from the institutions and from my friends has helped me to complete my assignments and is motivating me to continue reaching my goals,” said Prakash.
In registering for the meeting, scholars were asked to mention one thing that they felt was a recent accomplishment. Many wrote about picking up a new skill or honing an old one. “I have learned how to cycle; I have never done that before and have wished to for a long time,” said Zinia Anjuman Ara, a scholar from Bangladesh. “This was the biggest accomplishment, doing something completely for myself,” she added. When lockdown rules have allowed for it, Zinia has been going cycling in the quiet roads of Melbourne, Victoria, along with a few other friends and neighbours.
The virtual meeting was well received, with 100% of participants confirming that it was helpful. It sparked an interest for scholars to connect with one another and create a community of support, with many scholars requesting that their contact details be shared with each other for this purpose.
As a follow-up to the two-day virtual meeting, all Australia Awards scholars from South and West Asia received a compilation of health and wellbeing related information about the support available to international students in Australia, in addition to the support provided by their institutions.
Future virtual meetings for Australia Awards scholars from South and West Asia will be rolled out for specific activities and needs in the coming months.