For many of our Foundation Studies students, 2020 was a strange year to join to program. Most studied entirely online from their home country, while those who commenced early in the year got a small taste of face-to-face teaching before switching to online teaching in Melbourne. It was an unusual introduction to a new country, but for students like Min Thant Aung, it wasn’t all bad.
2020 wasn’t quite the year anyone expected. Least not for our February Main Foundation Studies students, who moved to Melbourne at the start of the year to embark on an exciting new chapter in a new country … only to find they couldn’t go anywhere.
But Gen Z are an adaptable bunch, particularly when it comes to the virtual world, and it didn’t take long for the Zoom parties to start and the friendships to form.
‘I had two months of face-to-face classes [when I arrived] and I made less friends in that two months than I made during the online period,’ says Min Thant Aung, also known as Tony, who moved to Australia from Myanmar.
Tony joined online social events coordinated by his fellow students and participated in group chats, and before Melbourne’s Stage 4 lockdown, had outdoor lunches with friends he’d made on screen.
That said, the online learning and social environment did take a while to warm up to.
‘At one point I wanted to quit, because it was really tough,’ Tony admits. ‘If you have a question, normally in class you can just ask directly, but when everything first went online there always seemed to be an internet problem, audio would be glitchy, and you couldn’t really see the teacher. The teachers themselves had never taught like that online before, so both teacher and students didn't have any idea what was happening. But then after two weeks the teachers started adjusting and so did the students, including me … After three months I was even thankful I was doing [Foundation Studies] online because it's much more flexible.’
Tony’s family was also relieved to see him thrive, as he proved that he could not only master the usual life skills that confront those who have newly flown the nest, like laundry and cooking, but could also make friends. This was particularly important given his family had initial concerns about him opting for Australia over Singapore, which is where his sisters studied and is closer to home.
Tony was intent on studying in Australia, however, after receiving a scholarship to attend Trinity’s Young Leaders Program (YLP) in July 2019. It was here that he got a taste of life at the University of Melbourne and Trinity College, and also found his confidence. ‘Before I came to YLP I was only confident around people of my own culture,’ he says. ‘If I was with a group of foreigners and had to stand up and speak, I would just freeze, mainly because I was scared that I might offend them.’
But through YLP, Tony discovered that he had little to fear. ‘Cultural views, political views – it doesn't matter what kind of view you have, [in Australia] you can express it in your own way and nobody will criticise or judge you.’
Tony was reassured of this fact by the homestay host he lived with when he arrived in Australia, who helped him navigate his early days in Melbourne and gave him insight into Australian culture. ‘Sometimes I’d ask: "I'm going to give a presentation in my class today, is it okay if I say this and that?" And she would say, “In Australian society you can say anything.” In my country, if you openly talk about other religions, for example, you might get into trouble. But here, even the taxi drivers just casually talk to you [about religion] and you can talk about politics to the cashier when you do grocery shopping ... It's more like in this country your opinion matters.’
While Tony is somewhat disappointed that he didn’t get to experience broader Australian culture and society in the same way as other Foundation Studies students, he’s looking forward to the future and plans to study a Bachelor of Design at Melbourne University next year, majoring in architecture. It’s a career path he tuned into at age three, when he took to playing with Lego. ‘I always liked building stuff,’ he says.
Though he’d like to return home to work in Myanmar someday, Tony doesn’t think the country has a high enough appreciation of architecture yet, so will bide his time in Australia until Myanmar’s market starts to grow.
He also plans to make the most of the networks in Australia, drawing on the connections he’s formed through Trinity College. ‘Through events at the start of the year, I got to know not just people from this (Foundation Studies) cohort, but also old students and other new students. If I have questions about the Melbourne School of Design or the application process, I can reach out to the students that were introduced to me by the College that are already studying there, so it’s very convenient. I think the best part is that Trinity is like a home; it's a community. So you feel close to it and you always have someone to reach out to, and there's always someone reaching out for you.’