When Monash University student Noah Yan first set foot in Melbourne 18 months ago, he did not know anyone in the city. Most of his family and friends were back home in China and it was the first time he lived by himself.
Just across the street from where Noah stayed was a red brick church. A sign on the church’s front lawn read ‘Monash Uniting Church: Many Cultures, One Community’.
“My family are all Christians back in China, but when I first came here I didn’t know where to go for Sunday worship,” Noah said.
“One Sunday I went into the church and Margaret Farrell greeted me. After worship, I knew this was the church I want to go to.”
Noah is one of 550,000 international students living in Australia. Uniting Church congregations throughout the synod offer hospitality, friendship and a second home for young people who otherwise might be alone in a foreign country.
“All the people in my congregation gave me a lot of help – both in my studies and my life here,” Noah said.
“Ray McCluskey is also a really good reverend, a kind and optimistic person who always encourages and helps me.”
While the worship style at Monash is similar to his church in China, Noah said there are a few notable differences.
“In China we don’t have morning tea after worship. People would normally go home after church. Here, we can chat after church and everyone has a really good time,” Noah said.
“I had a church with a really big congregation in China, but I didn’t know anyone. But here in Monash, I already know everyone in the congregation.”
Another difference is the culturally diverse composition of the church. Monash Uniting Church minister Rev Ray McCluskey believes it is one of the most multicultural congregations in the VicTas synod. The Monash congregation is home to people from more than 16 nationalities, including Indonesians, Japanese, Malaysians, Ghanaians and Tongans.
“Because our church is in such close proximity to Monash university, we have a constant flow of new people coming in to the congregation,” Mr McCluskey said.
“Currently we have a lot of Chinese students who come into the country for education and that’s where the international students find their way to our church.
“For a lot of them, we are an extension of their family. That’s the great thing about our community – it’s a very hospitable place and they can feel at home.”
Most of the international students who attend Monash UCA are postgraduate students like Noah. Some come by themselves while others bring their families along to services.
“One of the great things is that we don’t get what you traditionally find in large multicultural congregations where there are what I call ‘clusterings’,” Mr McCluskey said.
“They mix very well and it’s a very inclusive group of people. For an Anglo minister it’s been especially rewarding to come and work with them.
“Not only have they got their cultural differences, but they come from hugely diverse theological understandings as well, so it’s a wonderful acceptance of people’s different points of views.”
In addition to his ministry work with the Monash congregation, Mr McCluskey is part of Monash University’s multifaith chaplaincy team.
International students often fly to Australia as 17 to 18-year-olds with no family connections or existing support networks. Some struggle with homesickness and cultural shock.
“Loneliness is a big issue because, for a lot of them, it’s their first overseas trip,” Mr McCluskey said.
“But the thing that stands out from my chaplaincy work is that there’s enormous expectations on international students, especially our Asian students.
“There are a lot of high expectations culturally about attainment in terms of their marks and it places enormous pressure on them.”
Many international students also have to work part-time to cover their daily expenses. They are particularly vulnerable to exploitation from unscrupulous employers who prey on those unfamiliar with Australian law.
“Most of them are on the border of poverty in terms of day-to-day living,” Mr McCluskey said.
“Their folks have spent a lot of money for them to study in Australia and so they have very little disposable income and enormous pressure in terms of needing to achieve.
“There’s a lot of loneliness and depression that comes with having an enormous amount of expectations on your shoulders.”
The Monash congregation supports international students through an English language program that offers free tutoring to students, migrants and refugees. Monash Uniting Church member Margaret Farrell coordinates the program, which has been running since 1990.
“Sometimes, the students’ English skills aren’t so good so they get brushed off by people like landlords,” Ms Farrell said.
“We had one class for many years but the students wanted more, so about 15 years ago I added a Café Conversation class. So it’s grown a bit as we try to respond to the enormous need out there.”
While the program focuses on improving participants’ English skills, the tutors also offer practical assistance outside classes. This can range from proofreading CVs to accompanying students to police stations to report break-ins.
There are currently 12 volunteers in the English language program – seven volunteers from the congregation and five from the community. Historically, the church has relied on volunteers and BOMAR funding to sustain its missional activities.
“It’s been a battle financially, but it’s certainly worthwhile because you can see the changes in the students who were initially quite timid about just coming to class,” Ms Farrell said.
“Then to see them after a year or so full of confidence and actually enjoying Australia instead of walking around crying because they’re so lonely – it’s really rewarding to see.”
When Ms Farrell first started running the English classes, international students were a minority at Monash UCA. Now, almost three quarters of the congregation are from overseas.
“They add an energy, a vitality, an enthusiasm we sometimes lack,” Ms Farrell said.
“At the moment we’ve got a group of young Ghanaians and they’ve been able to sing songs from their country in our worship services.
“Because we have welcomed them to our congregation, they in turn get to be the welcomers. They want to give back and it’s tremendous to see.”
Noah was recently elected onto the church council and is excited to contribute to the congregation in a new capacity. He thanked Monash congregation members, especially his godmother, Chinglyna Chan, for their support throughout the past 18 months.
“Since I came to Melbourne, Chinglyna regarded me as her child without any hesitation,” Noah said.
“She takes care of me a lot during my life here and I think this is why I don’t feel like I’ve had a difficult time in Melbourne.”
After graduation, Noah hopes to obtain permanent residency and secure a job in Australia. But because his degree is not on the skilled occupation list (Noah is studying a Master of Applied Linguistics) he may have to return to China after graduation.
“If I can get a chance, I would love to remain in Australia,” Noah said.
“I really love this congregation but no matter where I will be, my heart will still be with them.”