Family first at VU

"We’re the biggest international family at VU."

Despite the power of this statement, Sebastian Au repeats the motto of Victoria University’s International Student Association with a no-nonsense shrug of his shoulders.

Taking a sip of his coffee one wintry June morning on the top floor of VU’s City Flinders Campus, Sebastian speaks with quiet yet assured resolve about the mission of VU’s International Student Association (ISA), of which the 26-year-old presides.

"We exist simply to make sure no international student feels homesick, lonely or stressed out, and to ensure they have a memorable experience at VU," Sebastian says.

"During one of our recent group excursions, two students were sitting by themselves on the bus, one seat after the other, and I asked them to sit next to each other and now they’re great friends," he says.

"It’s about creating one big support network – we call ourselves a family, just without mum and dad, because we’re really all brothers and sisters."

Founded in 2002 as a branch of the VU Student Union, the ISA is the peak body representing VU’s 14,000-plus international student cohort, acting to provide guidance, support and advice to students from diverse multicultural backgrounds to ensure they enjoy their new life at VU.

With 13 executive members and a growing fan club of some 1000 students, the ISA runs regular social events in addition to hosting a series of educational workshops throughout the year.

"We held 17 social activities in Semester 1, including a city tour and a trip to the Yarra Valley," Sebastian says.

"We also have a strong academic and professional development focus, whereby we host three to four educational workshops per semester – last semester we ran a barista workshop and a session on Australian visas."

As President of the ISA since December 2015, Sebastian initially came to VU on a study exchange from the University of Applied Science in Bonn, Germany, in 2012, and studied a semester of marketing.

After graduating from his home university in 2014 with a Bachelor of Science in Management, majoring in marketing and consultancy, Sebastian returned to VU to undertake his Master of Marketing, which he has just completed.

"When I came to VU in 2012 I fell in love with Melbourne and its laid back, friendly culture.

"I always knew I would return to VU – not because of its ranking but because of the atmosphere with the students here.

"VU caters so well to people from all different backgrounds and that’s what makes it so enjoyable for me."

Sebastian, who is also on the advisory board of the Council of International Students Australia, says he was inspired to become a voice for international students following a conference he attended last year.

"The student leaders who were at that conference really showed me that as a student, you can have an influence on how the international student experience is designed.

"I later decided to run for president of the ISA because not only is it good professional development in the sense that I manage 13 people, it’s also a way for me to give back.

"Australia has given me a lot, so in a way, by helping students have a good time and understand the complexities of living here, I am giving something back too."

While he believes international students have sound representation at a state and national level, Sebastian says universities should invest more in their international student bodies.

"Institutions need to back their student bodies more strongly.

"We are full-time students so we can only do so much because we need to focus on our studies and because we can only work 20 hours per week due to student visa conditions. Further, we’re only here for the duration of our degrees before new student representatives come in, who may not be as dedicated or connected.

"That’s why universities like VU should have at least one staff member who supports the association, to ensure the needs of international students, who are so valuable to Australia’s economy, are adequately met and to have continuity for the services we provide."

Aside from developing professional skills and networks, Sebastian says the role of ISA President has been immensely rewarding on a personal level.

"Having been an international student advocate, it’s a great accomplishment that people actually ask me for advice now.

"We’ve reached more than 1500 students through the ISA in Semester 1 alone, which is something I am incredibly proud of; it’s been a great team effort."

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