Francine Seeto

A tale of resilience

I have worked at SUPRA as a caseworker since 2009. In that time our engagement with international PG students has steadily grown to this day where over 90% of our cases are international students. When I started our international students came from South Korea, Japan, China, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Pacific area. I read somewhere that in 2009-10, total student visas issued for Australia doubled to 269,000 from a decade before. In 2010 the University conducted possibly its first ever review of support services for international students and provided a useful picture of the challenges for these students and the uni’s response. In 2011 the Australian Government introduced the Post Graduate Work Visa. At this time the total PG enrolment at the University of Sydney was 6,968 with a third of that as International students.

My work with international students has been the highlight of my time at SUPRA. So let me share with you a story of resilience, quiet determination and grace which typifies many of my interactions with ‘my students’.

In 2021 I met Sandy, a Chinese student in a postgraduate coursework degree. The first time I assisted her with advice on appealing against a credit decision after she had received poor advice in enrolling in a Masters coursework degree and had to change to a more suitable degree. The enrolment and credit issues were this student’s first experience of minimalist communication and support by the University’s bureaucracy. Ultimately the student was denied credit (on application and appeal) in 2 units in her new degree that she believed were similar to those she had already completed in the degree she should not have started. Sandy was never provide with satisfactory reasons for the appeal decision but she had to let it go. The second time I met with Sandy was a year later when she was on the cusp of graduating in her degree, except she was facing an academic misconduct investigation. The allegation was that large sections of her submitted assignment were plagiarised from an academic book. Sandy said she had never heard of the author and that she had sourced work from a Chinese language blog and was not aware this type of blog had to be referenced. Unfortunately she had previous notifications for academic dishonesty albeit in different types of referencing mistakes.

My whole involvement in this case was by zoom as the student was locked down in Shanghai, China for the entirety of her candidature. On zoom Sandy was sad and frustrated and found it more and more difficult to remain positive. I learned that her whole learning experience at the University of Sydney was by zoom and she had not made a single friend or had a sympathetic interaction with administration or a teacher. Sandy was not aware of learning support services, library help or counselling. During a period of 18 months Sandy was alone in her small room in Shanghai, studying a difficult degree in a second language and online. She told me she had borrowed money from her parents and a ‘bank’ for tuition and had to repay within a year and she was looking forward to starting in a ‘dream job’ which depended on her graduation. Now, with a long investigation she would likely also miss an all-important ‘jobs forum’ where major Chinese companies recruit new graduates. The investigation resulted in a finding and penalty which we appealed and eventually had upheld but this period lasted from January to July. During this time I became concerned about Sandy’s mental wellbeing and scheduled twice weekly zoom chats with her, mostly to reassure that someone at the University of Sydney cared and understood her situation. She was avoiding her parents and not seeing friends and often I would coax her into taking our zoom chats into the streets and gardens outside her unit, and bit by bit she showed me her neighbourhood and we talked.

What struck me about this case was how a lengthy investigation and the significant impacts of this, even before a finding, is devastating on international students’ lives. This case highlighted the inflexible nature of investigators in sticking to policy and holding a certain unwillingness to consider that international students may be disadvantaged by situations brought on specifically by online learning. Sandy made a mistake in her assignment for which she acknowledged. This was despite this student’s terrible experience over a 2 year period which started with ‘guidance’ by a recruitment agent enrol her into an expensive degree in which she had no background and would struggle, and continued with challenges that included general lack of engagement with her faculty, a history of her email enquiries going unanswered, no peer friendships and therefore no informal knowledge of systems and resources, and so on.

At the end we managed to reduce the penalty from 12 month suspension to 6 months and back dated to take into account the long delays. Sandy was appreciative and we continued to zoom for a bit and after she finally graduated I heard she had applied for jobs in the USA and she joked that she had nothing to lose and felt ‘lucky’.

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