My Local Life program creates community for international students

Photo Credit: Yohanes Hendratno

Please note: Images in this article were taken before current COVID-19 safety measures were in place.

‘My Local Life’ has created a vital support network for international students facing isolation during the coronavirus (COVID 19) pandemic.

When Julie Turner ran a Melbourne-themed online trivia for international students earlier last year, she was shocked to learn where they were signing on from.

“We had some prizes that people had to pick up. But it turned out, none of the winners were in Melbourne! They had studied here for a year, gone home during COVID-19, but were now feeling disconnected from Melbourne. I was thrilled to be able to connect them back to the city.”

Julie TurnerMelbourne has long been a favoured destination for international students, attracted to the city’s world-class universities and lifestyle. But the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic meant many reluctantly returned home. For those who stayed, it was vitally important to combat issues of isolation and loneliness, Turner says.

“Even before COVID-19, that was a massive issue for international students. The proven solution to loneliness is a simple thing: somewhere to go, with welcoming people. That was the basis of everything we did.”

To help address the problem, Turner – the founder of student-led startup B-Friend, which helps international students connect and engage with local Australian life – organised ‘My Local Life’, a program of online and in-person events. ‘My Local Life’ was held almost every weekend for six months and connected international students with volunteers, migrants, young people and community groups. Participants were given opportunities to both socially connect and embrace opportunities to develop skills through volunteering.

The online program was supported by the Victorian Government’s Let’s Stay Connected Fund, a $1.3 million community grants initiative that was designed to address issues of isolation and loneliness in the community due to the impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Organisers decided to theme roughly half of the program around social photography, to make it as accessible as possible for international students who might be intimidated by formal events or language barriers.

“We wanted a program that people could return to, so we thought: photography is something that’s not language-based. If you don’t have confidence with your English, you can still take and share photos. And these days, with smartphones, everyone’s a photographer. It’s a medium people are comfortable with.”

Alternating with the photography program was a ‘Live Like a Local’ series of events, which offered students the chance to meet Melburnians and connect with their local community.

“Many people don’t realise that international students love to meet Australians. They love seeing how locals interact. A picnic here is done differently to how it might be in China, for example. I always had at least one Australian [at each event].”

A weekly placement program gave student volunteers the opportunity to develop skills in everything from social media marketing to running focus groups, enabling participants to co-design the program as it went along. Meanwhile, a life hacks panel discussion gave participants an informal opportunity to learn practical study and life tips from their peers.

With so much going on, it’s unsurprising that a strong sense of community emerged from the program. Some participants even started an online newsletter, which is still running today.

“It gave them a sense of connection to other people and to study, life and the way we live in Australia.”

For details on the Let’s Stay Connected Fund, visit the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions website.

The Office for Suburban Development engages with local stakeholders and communities to identify their needs and aspirations, and deliver projects to improve local community involvement, infrastructure and services.