A positive experience as an international student in her youth ultimately inspired Dr Cheng Tan to support other students moving to Australia.
Cheng Tan has a solid understanding of what it’s like to be an international student. Hailing from Malaysia, she enrolled in a Bachelor of Science at Monash University in the 1970s and began a new life in Australia. As well as studying, she got involved in the student association and organised social activities to help connect international students and improve their overall experience. It was a clue as to what lay ahead in her career … but not before further study.
Soon after obtaining her first degree, Cheng moved onto a PhD in chemistry. ‘This was also a time I developed an interest in teaching,’ she remembers. While her university supervisor was then keen for Cheng to continue her studies with a postdoctoral degree in science, life chose a different path for her – she met her husband and instead she returned to Malaysia.
In Malaysia, Cheng began working for a Japanese textile company, however, feeling both overqualified and unsatisfied, she left to work at her father’s real estate business.
And with that, she was on a new, and far more fulfilling, path.
‘It was the best thing to happen to me because I met all sorts of professionals,’ she says. Interacting with architects, surveyors, urban planners, lawyers, engineers and council officers gave Cheng oversight of every aspect of the business and broadened her perspective of the world. ‘Working with my father also provided me the flexibility to start teaching,’ she says.
Hence, in the ensuing years (and at a time when typewriters were mainstream), Cheng began teaching, first at Disted College in Penang and then at Murdoch University as first-year science teacher. ‘Educating students was always a pleasure for me,’ she smiles, recalling how students were astonished about her love for teaching: ‘How do you do that? You enjoy teaching so much,’ a student asked after a particularly enthusiastic and engaging lecture.
Through distant education, and as a member of the Australian and New Zealand Graduate Association, Cheng had regular interactions with the High Commissioner during her teaching career and soon found herself involved in setting up a new Australian Counselling Centre aimed at promoting Australian education to Malaysians. While working as a counsellor, Cheng met Karel Reus, the then-executive director of the Trinity Education Centre (now known as the Pathways School). She started working with Karel as a chemistry lecturer in 1990, becoming one of the first teachers of Trinity’s Foundation Studies program.
In those early days, she not only guided students in their studies, but also picked them up from the airport in her station wagon and helped arrange their accommodation. Being the only staff member with a mobile phone was handy for locating lost students at the airport on the odd occasion.
In the 2000s, as Trinity College expanded and staff roles became more streamlined, she had to choose between teaching and administrative work. Despite enjoying teaching and finding immense pleasure in learning of her past students’ success at the University of Melbourne, she took up a position as Student Academic Advisor. In this position, Cheng now supports students throughout the student lifecycle – starting with enrolments, then monitoring and reporting on student academic progress before offering career counselling. And just as she did all those years ago at Monash, she helps make the international student experience a positive one.
By Bernadett Pócsik