Leaders and ambassadors

Leaders and ambassadors

NSW International Student Awards 2014


Award-winning program

Our international student leadership and ambassador (ISLA) program won first prize at the 2014 NSW International Student Awards on 15 September.

The program creates opportunities for students to better integrate and learn about local culture, and to break down language barriers and social isolation.

The City of Sydney is committed to providing support to the international student community, to help them make the most of their experience in Sydney. 

The co-winner of the community engagement award was the Redfern Legal Centre’s International Students Legal Advice Service, which receives funding from the City. 

Participants said the key benefits of the program were being able to develop connections with other international students (84%) and build networks and make friends locally (79%).

More than half of all students said the program helped them find work in Sydney. 

The City's Susana Ng with several international student leaders and ambassadors celebrating their award 

The 2014 NSW International Student Awards were presented by StudyNSW and the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet to celebrate the contribution international students make to the community.

Enhancing the student experience

After 6 months of training and volunteer work experience, 40 international student leadership and ambassador candidates graduated from the City's first program that aims to enhance international students' experiences while studying in Sydney.

At a graduation ceremony on 4 December 2013 at Sydney Town Hall, the candidates were officially appointed honorary roles as City of Sydney International Student Ambassadors.

They bring to their roles an understanding of the issues that face new international students when they arrive in Sydney, their network of other international and local students, as well as their cultural understanding and language skills.

In 2014, the ambassadors will undertake active roles to promote the City's events, projects and resources to international students studying in Sydney.

Main image: Some of the City of Sydney's International Student Ambassadors at the graduation ceremony on 4 December at the Sydney Town Hall.

They will work with the City to develop and implement projects for international students including:

Our program team leaders share their personal stories below about their time while studying in Australia – the highs and the lows, and what being an international student here and their involvement with ISLA, means to them.

Find out more about each ambassador, their experiences and tips for new international students.


If you would like to get in touch with an ambassador, please contact:

International Student Leadership and Ambassador Program
02 9265 9333

Khoa Nguyen

Khoa-NI am a fourth year student at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). In the past year I have been working with volunteer programs for international students at UTS as well as the ISLA program. I wanted to join these programs because my passion is to give international students here a good place to start their dream.

What is their dream? Australia is a developed country and most students who come here want to get a better education so they can go back to their mother country to contribute what they have learned. And their dreams are like mine – to make our countries a better place, not for us but for generations to come.

But how do they achieve their dream? They have to learn or to be more specific – it is about learning ‘soft skills’. University will teach you only ‘hard skills’, which will have an effect on about 15% of your success. The rest will depend on your ‘soft skill’ knowledge, which could be anything from how to arrange your timetable efficiently so you’re not cramming when finals begin, or it could just be about learning how to adapt to another culture.

I used to get bored when I watched AFL and NRL, or even cricket because I didn’t understand those games but the moment someone sat down with me and showed me the rules of AFL – the next thing I knew, I had become a Sydney Swans supporter!

Now I can talk to most of the local students about AFL and NRL because I have been living their culture.

This is why I want to show everyone around me that, with just a little help, everyone can adapt to other cultures and become more connected with each other.

When I received the email about the ISLA program from UTS International in March 2013 I decided straight away that I wanted to join. I thought it would benefit not only me, but also all the student groups around me, because I would be able to bring to them different perspectives about different cultures.

For me, being safe and well includes not only my physical self but also my mental state. Most of my friends ran into trouble, either financial, family problems or even about where to live in Australia. And if they hadn’t found out about the support from student services, they would never have said a thing, or just kept moaning to their friends, who are sometimes not that helpful.

Also, Australia is an extremely expensive place when it comes to renting a place to live with the average cost $150 minimum per week. It’s good that university provides some places for university students to live, like UTS Housing but the cost is sometimes too expensive. A student would rather spend less money and live in a small room with 3 or 4 people than live in housing, which can affect them both in the short and long term.

This is the reason why I am actively involved in different clubs and societies ̶ to share my knowledge and to help other international students.

Omar Khan

Khoa-NI am a postgraduate IT student at Charles Sturt University. I’ve been in Sydney for a little over a year and so far I’ve loved it!

Growing up I never had to worry about big things like money, travelling and buying things I wanted. Even little things like cooking, cleaning and doing the laundry – we had maids and cooks to do all of that for us.

Before I moved to Sydney, I had never cooked anything myself or washed my own clothes, or paid rent but now I’m doing all of that myself while managing my expenses as well, and although it’s tough it’s also a learning experience.

My goal was to experience everything that Sydney has to offer and I am doing that!

Of course, doing all of that alone is not fun and I wanted to integrate into the community, meet new people to get greater exposure to Sydney life.

I saw the ISLA program as an opportunity for international students to be given a platform so that we can share things we have in common and since we are all from overseas, it is a lot easier to relate.

I’m glad I have met the amazing people in the ISLA program and I am grateful to the City for giving us this amazing platform to help each other be successful in our pursuits.

Looking back, I’m glad that I made the decision to pursue my postgraduate degree in Australia and stepped out of my comfort zone to challenge myself.

Vinh Duc Truong

I was encouraged to volunteer in community work many times by my friends and the advisors from my educational institutions at Taylors College and at the University of NSW. They all said that the experience would be enjoyable and valuable.

In April this year, an open application for all international students in Sydney was offered – to volunteer as an international student leader and ambassador for the City. Instantly, I believed I had the chance to do some volunteer work and I decided to apply for the ISLA program.

The experience and journey I have had so far with ISLA has been more than what I expected. The training workshops were all really well facilitated. I did not only learn technical knowledge, I also learnt important skills like time and self-management, teamwork, conflict handling, task management, critical thinking, leadership and communication.

The main area I needed to improve was my communication skills. ISLA provided me with excellent opportunities to communicate with both friends at and people outside. Hence, both my oral and verbal communication techniques have improved.

Moreover, I have met many new friends through ISLA who are also international students. Some of us are facing the same situation – living distantly from family and childhood friends in our own countries. We were grateful to meet each other here as we can share our working, studying and living experiences of Sydney.

Honestly, I am thankful to ISLA as it has bridged me with the wider community and provided me with many excellent opportunities to improve my skills and to enjoy my life in Sydney.

Right now, I think that I made one of my best decisions of my life to be an International Student Ambassador for the City.

Hopefully, the City will also create more chances for other international students to enhance their experiences of living and studying in Sydney through continuing ISLA in the future.

Bhavini Dattani

I arrived in Sydney in February 2012 from the United Republic of Tanzania, to continue my degree in human resource management at the Australian Catholic University (ACU).

I believe that allowing and welcoming certain challenges has a huge impact in shaping my self-esteem and confidence to be an obligated student and an active community member.

As students, we all have some hardships to go through, either living away from home, language barriers, culture shock, different education systems, making friends, adjusting to the environment, making your way around and even just making decisions on your own. For me, all these hardships have turned into learning events. It is only through these experiences that I have been able to grow as a person, and I continue to do so.

Coming from the United Republic of Tanzania, I found the technology in Sydney overwhelming! It was so fascinating for me to plug in my USB to a printer at uni, or even just having an ATM card! Things like online shopping, buying train tickets from a machine, the checkouts at supermarkets – it was all new to me! With time I have learnt that Sydney has everything you want to know, and want to learn about – all you have to do is get involved – at your library, with different groups, going to restaurants, various classes and entertainment.

Sydney is a spectacular city with endless opportunities and prospects in store for everyone! Some of the most valuable opportunities and experiences I have had in Sydney include simply being at university. I immediately eased in to the environment and found the staff and students very friendly.

One of the richest experiences you can get as an international student in another country is making friends and the interaction with other students from various cultures and backgrounds.

You should not be afraid to make friends with people from different cultural backgrounds because from them, you learn more about the world around you, from their views and way of life.

Assignments at university were a challenge for me too as I never had to do any within the education system back home. However I came to love assignments, especially group assignments, which allowed me to work with fellow students and give presentations in front of the class. As a result, I am not the nervous person I used to be.

I was asked to represent the ACU at the Lord Mayor’s welcome and deliver a speech to more than 1,000 people. This was huge for me! With this opportunity I was able to face my public speaking fear – 2 years ago I wouldn’t have been able to do it. Giving presentations at university played a big part in releasing my fears about speaking to an audience.

My work placement in Sydney has been very valuable. As part of my course I had to undertake a placement in my field of expertise. This again was a challenge for me and finding a company took me a few days. For my interview I had to deliver a presentation to the panel about recruiting strategies. To my surprise, just hours after my interview I was selected.

The working environment in Sydney is organic and has a learning approach in comparison to Tanzania where the cultural norms traditionally demand a more bureaucratic approach. I have been able to learn so much from working, even just the daily tasks.

As part of my role, I had to go out and meet with recruiting agencies, arrange appointments with them and also interview the current staff. I might have never been able to do this back home. I completed my internship with great comments from my peers, but more importantly I became a more confident individual.

Finally, the ISLA program is one that has helped me make a drastic change within myself. ISLA has offered me the chance to do various training in fields that have been useful to me in my day-to-day life. I have made new friends and have had the opportunity to work with them. ISLA has also brought me closer to Sydney.

Participating in events like NAIDOC Week allowed me to be a part of and celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Preparing food for the guests and watching the lovely performances was delightful.

The ISLA program has not only filled the social gap I was facing, but has also enhanced my interpersonal skills. I have been able to build on skills such as teamwork, collaboration, innovation, organisation and time management. Working with the City in making the community stronger for international students has been a pleasurable experience that I shall always be thankful for.

So what I used to think of as challenges about living in another country, have actually turned into blessings and memories I will always treasure. Living responsibly is the key to living in another country. If you live responsibly and make the best use of your time, environment and facilities provided by both the university and the city itself, you have the freedom to enjoy yourself.

To end my story I shall finish with a quote which I love from Confucius: “Whereever you go, go with all your heart.”

Salma Tabanji

I come from a very small town in Venezuela and I felt that my chances of taking part in the ISLA program were very unlikely because my parents never attended college. My parents, however, pushed me and worked very hard so I could pursue formal education.

This led me to be an MBA candidate at the Sydney Business School at the University of Wollongong.

My story is only one of many stories we share among ISLA program members as we all come from different countries, cultures and backgrounds. It has been less than a year since I came to Australia and I chose Sydney because it offered a similar lifestyle to my home country but with the benefits of being in a first world country.

In adapting to this beautiful city and university life, I decided to apply for the ISLA program to get me out of my comfort zone, expand my network, and share my experiences, but mostly, to have a sense of belonging. It is not always easy being an international student.

The ISLA program brings together many diverse skills and personalities – even ages – but words cannot express how amazing the program is.

After months of continuous learning experiences, courses and the opportunity to lead the first social event of the program, I am certain that this is only the beginning of many great stories and accomplishments we’ll be sharing.

My greatest highlight is realising how much in common most international students have within all the diversity and how many great things can be achieved by building a support, learning and sharing network.

Not only through its members but by extending it to the wider community, which is our next step.

My greatest win is having made beautiful friendships that I am sure will last a lifetime.

Finally, I would like to express my admiration and respect for the hard work and commitment from all the volunteers representing the international student community in Australia.

And my gratitude to the ISLA program and the City of Sydney as we now have more tools, and a great network to continue building upon.

Anston Ratanyake

'Sydney is the one of the world’s most expensive places to live.' That's what everyone told me before I came here. However, they forgot to tell me Sydney is also one of the most multicultural and cosmopolitan cities on earth with an amazing harbour, festivals all year round, a never ending array of restaurants, museums and most of all, laidback and friendly people.

I came to Sydney with an open mind, ready for the journey of a lifetime. I will graduate soon after nearly 4 years of studying and I can honestly say that it has been an amazing ride.

I have met some amazing people in my time and I was able to go beyond my limitations to achieve some of the best things in life when it came to knowledge and work.

The ISLA program will be an achievement that I expect to talk about for years to come.

It helped me use my skills such as events organisation and management, people skills, writing reports and many more, to improve the relationship between the local and international community.

It assured me that programs like this help international students realise that it is not all about studying at university and going back to your country of origin, but it’s about breaking your boundaries and engaging with the people and your surroundings.

Eventually if I decide to stay here, it would be amazing to explore more career and life changing opportunities. However if I decide to go back, I will leave with a treasure trove of knowledge from university studies, Sydney life and programs like ISLA.

If I had to sum everything into one line it would be, Sydney helped my dream come true.

Sydney lets you make her your oyster, if you are ready for what Sydney has to offer and make the best use of it.

Minnie Chuyi Sheng

I completed my masters in media practice at the University of Sydney. This is my story.

The first day I came to Sydney, I still remember, it was 29 February 2012. It was raining and the air was so fresh. I was going to start a fresh new life in a fresh new country. I couldn’t express how excited I was! However, life was tougher than I thought.

The first difficult thing that happened was when I went to the bank to open an account, I couldn’t understand what the teller was saying. The same thing happened when I went to a fast food store. I only knew a simple word like 'ham' but couldn’t say what kind of cheese or what the other things were. The man behind the counter showed little patience, which I could understand, because they were selling fast food and there were so many people queuing behind me. After those things happened again and again, I became so frustrated.

I used to be an excellent student with scholarships, all kinds of prizes and titles like student union president and vice-chancellor’s assistant in my university in China, but here I felt I was nothing and could hardly live like a normal adult. Anyway, life needed to continue, so I went to university every day but spoke little in class and made few local friends.

Until by chance I saw a post on Weibo, which is the Chinese version of Twitter, that Lord Mayor Clover Moore’s election team was recruiting volunteers for the 2012 election, so I thought why not try?

I applied for it and I was warmly welcomed. We did some tasks like door knocking and while doing this we talked with each other. After they heard about my experiences here, they told me some things that I will never forget.

"You know how amazing you are in our eyes? You are in a country that you have never lived in, and speaking a language that is not your native tongue, which is a pretty tough thing. However, you have done everything so well with your studies and living here. And now you are engaged in local communities' events. It is unbelievable that this has happened in just a few months. We could hardly imagine how we could study and live in China if we could not speak English."

I was really encouraged by these words and felt that I could do better if I had the courage and will to work hard. After that, I was more motivated to study and got distinctions for many of my subject units.

Additionally, I took many part-time jobs, first a waitress, then sales, telemarketing and I interned as a journalist and broadcaster. I also participated in volunteering, doing a media campaign for an NGO foundation and editing news for the Nan Tien Temple.

What’s more, joining the ISLA Program has been the most meaningful thing in my life here. I have met so many friends from multicultural backgrounds.

I have learnt so many useful and practical skills, such as writing clearly, event management, grant submissions and the like. I have had the opportunity to attend Council meetings and other community activities.

Can life in Sydney be more colourful?

Yes! And the answer can be created by me, by you, and by all other international students.

Reuben Blobahgar Gboweh

I am an international student from Liberia, West Africa. I am pursuing a master’s degree in project management at the University of Sydney. I hold a bachelor of arts degree in political science and history, and a number of professional certificates.

I worked with the National AIDS Commission of Liberia as its program manager. Much of my professional life has been in the provision of services for people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS, marginalised and disadvantaged populations, and developing HIV/AIDS strategic frameworks.

My early student life was devoted to providing leadership and guidance to my colleagues both at home and in the countries where I have lived and studied.

With the ISLA program I have participated in training courses such as local government overview, leadership, event management, cultural intelligence, communicating assertively in the workplace and grant submission writing. The training went marvellously well. I appreciated every bit of it and have made some wonderful friends. To date, the single most memorable experience I have had was attending one of the Council meetings. The important take-home-message was the manner and method used by the City to harness the local community’s views and implement decisions that affect them.

This is the beginning of a wonderful year long experience with the City. I hope it will continue to be as enjoyable and life enhancing as ever. It has been a great beginning!

Zhitong (Emma) Liu

My name is Liu Zhitong, but most of my Australian friends call me Emma. I have been studying in Australia since 2010. During my time here I have been involved in student leadership in high school and at the University of Sydney. It is an honour and a great pleasure to be involved with the City as an international student ambassador.

Being an international student is a life changing experience. It was difficult at the beginning – I had no friends and no immediate family with me, having to speak my second language made it even harder.

When I went to high school, I was encouraged to step out of my comfort zone. I met a group of extremely supportive friends and decided to run for my first ever student leadership role in Sydney – I became one of the prefects. Magic has happened since then.

When I started university this year, I had the opportunity to meet the amazing international student officers and eventually got involved with the Student Representative Council.

Also, at the beginning of this year, by chance I saw the advertisement recruiting international student ambassadors on a social media platform. I did not know what I was getting myself into back then. Being a curious typical first-year student, and heavily influenced by the activist culture at the University of Sydney, I submitted my application.

It is always good to know that you are able to make other peoples’ lives better. This feeling is magnified when you are working with a group of like-minded people. It has been a great pleasure working and learning with a group of extremely talented people who have become a great inspiration to me since day one. Our supervisor Susana, and the interns have also been extremely supportive. Honestly, the people are one of the greatest things about ISLA, along with the valuable training and opportunities provided by the City.

I decided to run for team leader because I wanted to get more involved in the program. As a team leader I was given the opportunity to work with other leaders to organise the ISLA social picnic, which turned out to be a success. The more I get involved, the more I appreciate the power of stepping out of my comfort zone and taking on new things.

Thi Than Tu (Tina) Tran

I came to Sydney a little more than 3½ years ago to start my university degree. At that point in time I did not know what to expect out of this experience. I decided to try my very best to make the most of it, first of all by making friends, both with fellow international students and with local residents.

Bit by bit, I explored Sydney and the fantastic academic, social and career opportunities that it has to offer. I started to get involved with more and more activities within the local communities, at university, at work and most importantly with the City.

Being an ISLA member, I have been able to enhance my leadership and project management skills and I am looking forward to using them in future projects that I will be involved in next year.

It has not been completely smooth-sailing for me here in Sydney. Being away from home and familiar settings means that I do not have the luxury of depending on my pre-existing network for help and support. But that motivates me to always be in the know about the support mechanisms available to international students and reach out to build a whole new network here in Sydney. The more I learn about these mechanisms the more prepared I am to take on new opportunities that Sydney has to offer.

If I have to choose one thing that I love most about Sydney, I would say it is the city’s energy that really appeals to me.

The multiculturalism that Sydney has to offer is fantastic as it allows me to meet and become friends with people from all walks of life and all sorts of cultural backgrounds.

Some of these friends still amaze me with their stories about their customs and cultural practices.

Studying in Sydney has been a real eye-opening journey for me. It is such an amazing city to live, study and work in.

Reeve Koelmeyer

Reeve KoelmeyerUntil I moved to Sydney 5 years ago, I had never left home. I was 16 and in Sydney – I was overwhelmed with freedom! And from now on I would be making my own decisions but being a naïve, obnoxious, privileged and confused boy in a new city I made some bad decisions in the beginning. But they are decisions I don’t regret making at all.

I must admit though, I have been extremely lucky not to suffer any terrible repercussions as a result of some of those decisions.

When I first came to Sydney I had no real concept of who I was as an individual.  The world was my oyster and I went looking for the good, and the bad! To be honest, I was just like a 4-year-old child being left alone in a toy store! So here I was in a city that was new to me but I wanted to find a way to fit in.

Over the past 5 years I have been able to work out who I truly am, and I am not just a lazy, romantic poet full of wishful thinking. I am studying law, which can be painstaking at times – as any other course would be – but if it weren’t for this degree I wouldn’t have met the lovely people who have made me realise that I am not alone in my mind set.

I have finally found my true calling in life: I want to dedicate my life to animal rights advocacy.

Now, I’m almost 22 years old and I have established myself in this city and I hope I will be able to make it my permanent home one day. I have made many lifelong friendships in Sydney, I have fallen in love and have been heartbroken and my parents and I are now closer than we have ever been. Being in a new city has also made me appreciate what true friendship is all about, here and overseas. Sydney is now where I call home and I could not imagine life anywhere else.

The ISLA program introduced me to new friends here in Sydney, friendships with people who reminded me of what it was like to move to a foreign country with no established links. Their stories became our ISLA stories, regardless of nationality, background, class or race – we have all moved away from home and have made Sydney our new home.

Sydney has taught me how to become a better person and to strive earnestly to make this world a better place. Sydney has taught me so much about life more than any university degree can teach me alone.

Sydney burst my privileged bubble and made me realise that making others happy is the basis of my existence. I have been heartbroken, I have lost many a friend, but let me tell you, one thing I’m certain of, is that Sydney with all its beauty and mystery will always be there for me.

Last updated: Thursday, 5 February 2015