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Nurturing connection at Murdoch’s International Café

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Starting university is exciting. It’s the beginning of a journey towards a new career or research interest.

There are also social benefits, such as studying with likeminded people, making friends, and discovering new interests. Apart from lectures and assignments, this is what ‘uni’ is all about.

While this is true for many, for international students the social side of university doesn’t always come easy.

Many start their university journey in Australia facing unique challenges such as language barriers, cultural adaptation, and being far from their usual support networks. These issues, compounded by financial and academic pressures, can be overwhelming. 

But on Wednesdays at Murdoch’s Perth campus, you’ll find a vibrant and diverse community of international students playing music, painting, and cuddling therapy dogs as they navigate the challenges of university life, far from the comfort of home.

This is Murdoch University’s International Café. 

Every Wednesday in The Den, a welcoming space underneath the Student Hub, more than 200 students from a range of countries socialise and make important connections that will help them through their university journey.

Enjoying the activities with the students are student services staff including psychologists and counsellors, social workers, the medical and health service, the access and inclusion team, learning support staff, the student guild, and the library. 

The brainchild of Student Wellbeing and Equity and Projects Officer Yohann Devezy, Murdoch’s International Café was based on similar initiatives at Edith Cowan and James Cook Universities, but took a less formal approach focused on social and relational activities.

The Café’s supportive environment is extended online through the Virtual International Student Hub, which offers the same social connection, information sharing, and normalising of student challenges and support seeking behaviour.

“When I first started with this idea, I thought I was going to hear a lot from students about financial issues, accommodation issues, issues with studies etcetera,” Yohann said.

But the most common need that I heard from students was that they wanted to make friends and not be isolated in what is a bit of a strange space for many.”

It’s a feeling that Yohann, who moved to Australia from France a decade ago, remembers well.

“I know what it feels like to be a bit of an outsider,” he said.

“It took me more than two years to feel like I could confidently communicate and connect with others - being able to do so is made so tricky when it’s not a language you are fluent in. 

“It is also really exhausting talking all day in a language that is not your own, the mental gymnastics is so tiring.”

Also part of the LGBTQIA+ community, Yohann knows that a sense of belonging and safety is critical to enabling personal authenticity.

The international café's purpose was, and still is, to create a proactive support space, community, and sense of belonging”

The Café has been so successful at this that Yohann, with Murdoch colleagues Rose Williams, Shirley Farr and Em Readman, along with Braden Hill, Liz Beresford and Clair Mermejo from Edith Cowan University, recently published a paper, International café: A collaborative approach to international student wellbeing and support, in the Journal of the Australian and New Zealand Student Services Association. 

“We published the paper because we wanted to share the success of Murdoch’s version because it has had such a positive impact,” Yohann said, adding that he hoped other universities take up the idea for their international cohorts.   

“At the beginning I assumed we’d have maybe 10-20 people turn up, but right from the beginning there has been 70 plus, which was validating because it confirmed my feeling that this was something students desperately needed.”

Murdoch University's International Café and Virtual International Student Hub are more than just support programs, they are vibrant communities fostering a sense of belonging and mutual aid. 

By addressing the unique challenges faced by international students and providing a dedicated space for connection and support, they not only aid in the academic success of international students but also enrich the cultural tapestry of the university, contributing to a more inclusive and diverse academic environment. 

As Murdoch University continues to refine and expand these programs, the positive impact on the lives of international students and the broader community is undeniable. 

“The most amazing thing is being able to see students who come in feeling quite lonely, cautiously engage with complete strangers over art therapy or other activities - seeing them walk away with contact details of people they’ve met in the Café warms my heart,” Yohann said.

“There is also such a strong community now, we all know each other, the students are familiar with the key support staff and know that outside of the café those connections are maintained.     

“Being thanked by students and told that this is a ‘home away from home’ means everything to me.

“The staff and volunteers that have been involved often reflect on how they get just as much (if not more) out of the café as the students - we all learn, we all grow together.”

Read the paper that explains how Murdoch University's International Cafe is making positive difference to the lives of our international students.

Posted on:

24 Nov 2023

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