Her face was a complete contradiction: youth and freshness, accompanied by pronounced dark circles under her eyes. “It’s the cost of living in Australia,” she said. She nimbly positioned herself at the side of the table, coffee in hand, as a barely concealed yawn escaped her mouth.
Viviana Sosa is one of the thousands of international students who arrive in Australia from Latin America, chasing dreams, trying to improve their professional profile. She arrived from Medellín, Colombia, two months ago. A psychologist by profession, she made the decision to undertake the journey to connect with a new language, leave her family behind and start a new life. .
“It has not been what I expected,” she said. “In my country people are warm, welcoming, open, outgoing, and here it’s the opposite. Australians are distant, introverted, frugal, emotionally unexpressive. It is difficult for Latinos to fit in with that kind of people. All the Latinos I’ve talked to say it’s hard, it’s complicated to be without family, without sharing as we are used to, without the emotional support we are used to.”
Her gaze changed as she spoke, becoming heavier and sadder. “It’s hard,” she said. “In Colombia I was ‘somebody’ and here I feel like I’m ‘nobody’, not because I’m bothered by the tasks I do, but because some Australians make you feel less. ‘You are the one who cleans’, as if you were on a lower level.”
Despite being an experienced professional, Viviana works as a cleaner in Melbourne.
According to Australian government figures, about 600,000 international students entered the country in 2022, of which around 40,000 are from Latin America. Although it is difficult to compare with countries such as China, which according to the data accounts for 150,000 International students, it is precisely this phenomenon that creates complex realities.
Latinos are one of the smallest ethnic groups on in the country, especially when compared to Asian nations as a reference point. Support networks are minimal.
Irma Rivera, from Mexico, recounts her experience. “I arrived more than three years ago to study for an advanced diploma in civil design and I don’t really feel that my knowledge has increased,” she said. “I had a very bad experience at the school where I invested money and two years of my life. Maybe I would recommend coming just to learn English.”
This is precisely the factor that makes it most difficult for Latinos to integrate into the Aussie lifestyle: language.
Specialists such as Dr Meeri Hellsten have found that language-based cultural contacts do not tend to meet the expectations foreign speakers had when they came to the country, and many of them believe that just living in an English-speaking country will automatically allow them to improve in that area.
Irma said that, for her, the language barrier was the biggest complication in her academic journey. “Trying to learn in a language that is not my own has been very hard. I assumed something like this might happen, but the classes I initially had went online during the pandemic and everything was even more complicated.”
The pandemic was an additional factor adding to the problems faced by international students from Latin America.
Irma said she did not receive government support for being a student. “On the news I heard (former Prime Minister Scott) Morrison say we had to leave, and I got emails every two weeks from my school reminding me to pay my tuition fees,” she said. “It wasn’t a quiet time and I ended up spending all my savings.”
Irma was an architect in her home country. In Melbourne, she works as a babysitter and in a Mexican handicraft shop.
Jhanvi finds her way
Jhanvi Punjabi speaks with a certain shyness. She is Chilean, but with an Indian background, so her speech mixes Spanish and English in equal parts. At the age of 23, she proudly talks about her university life in Australia. A few months ago she finished her Bachelor of Business Administration at Monash University and has managed to work in a job close to her studies. Today she works as a marketing manager for a technology company. She considers herself an “atypical” Latina.
“On my campus I only met two people from Latin America, an Argentinian and a Peruvian,” she said. “I get the impression that most people come to learn English. It creates a strange atmosphere because there are so few of them. I didn’t have that Latin family that you expect to have outside your home.”
She gets emotional when talking about Melbourne. For her it’s not just a city, it’s not just a place, it’s a home. “I like the way different cultures are celebrated, there are activities all the time, all kinds of activities,” she said. “Maybe I would like to see more recognition of Chile or other Latin American countries. You miss the food, the closeness with your family, the attachment you have with your loved ones, but these are the things we consciously leave behind to fulfil our dreams.”
After five years, perceptions change and what was once totally unknown, now becomes everyday.
Melbourne as a destination for international students
“Welcome to the City of Melbourne, one of the world’s top destinations for higher education.”
With that sentence on her website the Lord Major, Sally Capp, begins her message to international students. In it, she details many of the benefits that the city has for young people.
The council’s tourism operations officer Bibiana Moreno, who helps oversee various promotional programmes for international students, said each activity aimed to be diverse and to welcome all foreign students, but there was no specific focus for each group or nationality.
“When activities are carried out, all audiences are considered, without Latinos being a target group,” she said. “Some, such as Vida Festival, are more popular in the community and in The Couch, a centre for international students, ‘cultural nights’ are held, each month for a different country.”
Bibiana suggests that, unfortunately, participation in these activities by Latinos was low as they tended to work many hours.
“There are an important number of activities that are carried out with students in mind, we want to cooperate so that they feel comfortable and can discover the wonderful destination that Melbourne is,” she said.
“City of Melbourne looks forward to collaborating with the Victorian Government to deliver Victoria’s International Education Recovery Plan 2025, to promote Melbourne as Australia’s best student city, and to reinforce Melbourne’s strong position as a world-class study destination, supporting international education recovery and attracting the best global talent.”
The challenge is important and each link in the chain must function properly. The government is making efforts on behalf of students and those involved understand that it is a complex problem – one that involves money, working hours, cultural clashes and high expectations.
‘Melbourne’, spelled out in yellow letters on a brown background, welcomes airport arrivals to a new country, a new world, a new life. But that means different things for different people. For the thousands of Latinos who arrive every year to study in the land of the koala, they are living in the present with one foot in the future. They are the ones that make tiredness and disappointment the necessary evils to achieve even more complex goals in their countries of origin.