Going Solo

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They say this 3-year solo flight of a PhD journey is one fraught with anxiety, self-doubt, and a lot of other negative stereotypical emotive words, whether related to the student, supervisors, and the monster called Thesis. I’m an idealist. When I embarked on my PhD studies, I made up my mind to make it a positive experience, no matter how I felt, with whatever resources I had.

9 months into the journey, flight, any metaphor of your choosing, I’ve had to deal with those stereotyped feelings and emotions, whether it was from me, or proffered by others. Was my candle snuffed out for good? Did my grand ideas and ambitions count for nothing? Had my idealised vision of an emergent scholar come to terms with reality? I was tempted to admit defeat and claim the messiness and roller-coaster emotions as normalcy, but I couldn’t, and didn’t.

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A particular incident prompted me to reflect deeply about what I’ve been through. I talked to others, considered my options, and was in between feeling resigned to my fate, and feeling indignant about my situation. Then I took up the advice of a senior PhD student who had gone through a similar situation. One action led to another, and these actions opened up possibilities. Through the process of exploring what I could do, I managed to step away from myself, my situation, and considered things in a less emotional and more critical and objective manner. It helped that I was away for a few days in Wellington for a student conference, and that experience also helped re-framed my outlook on my PhD.

I’ve taken steps to move away from self-pity, and to create a more nurturing environment where I believe my ideals need not be be displaced, but work alongside the twists and turns of PhD life.

I do not discount the effects of academic isolation that a 3-year PhD model brings, but I do not believe the PhD student needs to buy into the narrative of doom and gloom. My PhD studies were motivated by sociopolitical ideals and personal goals. I’m not about to let the dream fade into a distant memory.

ASEAN Student Voice 2015

I was nominated by the Faculty of Education at the University of Waikato to attend an event organised by Education New Zealand (ENZ). The event is called Student Voice and it provides the opportunity for internationals students to network, and for ENZ to hear from the students themselves about their educational experiences in New Zealand. This year’s Student Voice was named ASEAN Student Voice 2015, in celebration of 40 years of partnership between New Zealand and ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations). It was held on 11-12 August, 2015 in Wellington.

I met 29 other international students from Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam, as well as 10 Kiwi students who had previously spent some time studying in ASEAN countries. The 40 of us spent two days discussing issues international students face, as well as learning from representatives from government, educational institutions, and private companies.

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It was a packed programme, rich with ideas, possibilities, and inspiration. There were practical tips for job search and interview skills, as well as perspectives of what international education means for New Zealand. I was especially inspired by Simon Chu from Otago University, Lester Khoo from AUT, and Jimmy Walsh from Beca. While Simon and Lester shared their personal stories and motivations for building networks with international students, Jimmy spoke about the increasing importance for New Zealand to engage with ASEAN countries.

Despite a full programme, there was time during breaks and meals to interact with the participants. I formed new friendships and also had the opportunity to discuss my PhD research with fellow participants. My research on informal learning practices of international students struck a chord with many and I received insightful comments and encouraging words.

I didn’t have much time for sightseeing but managed to see a good part of the city early Wednesday morning. You can’t beat Wellington on a good day, as the locals say, and I’m blessed to have been in Wellington on a good day. Instead of ducking my head in wild wind, I faced the rising sun along the waterfront, and ambled along the streets as the city came to life.

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I left my heart in Wellington. The city reminds me of San Francisco – the waterfront, the hilly landscape, and a vibe that makes the city come alive.

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Chanced upon a magazine shop tucked behind a coffee place. Apparent, only one of two in New Zealand. The other of its kind is in Auckland. Here, I found serious reads and childhood favs (Beano!). Picked up kids mags that came with freebies.

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The Railway Station. A regular means of transport between suburbs and city.

The timing of ASEAN Student Voice 2015 was also opportune for personal reasons. I was invited to attend a gala dinner organised by the Singapore High Commission in celebration of Singapore’s 50th National Day. I had never been so excited to be part of a Singapore community since leaving home more than nine months ago.

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A cultural performance by a Singaporean arts group flown in for the occasion.

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A mishmash of Singapore dishes – or rather, a Kiwi version of Singapore dishes. Somewhere in there was Chicken Rice.

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The final course of our gala dinner – a dessert platter with Kiwi and SG elements. The only recognisable dessert for me were the three chocolates.

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A spontaneous selfie moment with the Singapore High Commissioner, His Excellency Mr Bernard Baker and his lovely wife, Susan.

Reflecting on ASEAN Student Voice 2015, I am impressed with New Zealand’s commitment to creating a positive international student experience, and even more impressed with the passion and personal convictions of the speakers. Their common message was about relationships – cultivating meaningful and long-lasting relationships between New Zealand and its ASEAN neighbours.

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Group photo with Minister for Tertiary Education, Hon Steven Joyce

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Group photo from Education New Zealand (taken from FB page – Study in New Zealand)

I now have a renewed vigour for my research, and a clearer vision of how my New Zealand journey can make a difference in the international student experience for my immediate community and beyond. I’m grateful to have had this experience and look forward to many more.

Postscript (19 October 2015): Read the article by Education New Zealand about Student Voice 2015.