University of Sydney student Ho Yin (Joshua) Wan has been named NSW International Student of the Year (Higher Education).
The awards, a NSW Government initiative, were announced today at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. They celebrate the achievements and contributions of international students at institutions across the state. The finalists come from countries including China, India, Laos, Brazil and Myanmar.
Wan, a third year student from Hong Kong, balances his Bachelor of Applied Science (Physiotherapy) with volunteering at an aged care home. He also provides his fellow students with mental-health support.
For the past year, the 22-year-old has lived in the Scalabrini Bexley aged care home as a participant in the University’s Gold Soul Companionship program. The initiative offers allied health students the chance to live in a self-contained apartment at the care facility, in exchange for volunteer hours, providing company for elderly residents.
Wan draws on his physiotherapy degree to run exercise classes for the residents. He has formed friendships with people many decades his senior. They chat and enjoy each other’s company. Residents offer him lollies and even relationship advice.
“There’s one resident who I reach out to for advice on everything from uni to my dating life,” he said. “The residents give you a different perspective because they have experienced so much. It’s about building connections.”
The experience has given him insights he hopes to use one day as a health practitioner.
“You learn a lot when you are living closely with the elderly,” he says. “It’s the sort of knowledge you don’t get from lectures at uni.”
He has been documenting residents’ stories in a series of drawings. It began as a personal project, but the residents were so enthusiastic that he expanded the idea into the GrannyTell initiative. Students can submit questions online about the experiences of older people. Wan then asks the residents and publishes their responses anonymously on social media. He is creating more drawings based on the answers and will compile them in a book and exhibition, funded by a Student Co-curricular Grant.
At University, he is an advocate for the mental health of his fellow students, driven by his own experiences. When he arrived in Sydney from Hong Kong in 2019 to begin his studies, he felt isolated and overwhelmed.
“From arriving at the airport by myself to doing stuff like getting an Opal card for public transport and dealing with exam stress – I never actually got a diagnosis but I felt extremely anxious,” he said.
“I was lucky in that someone was there for me to help get me out of that headspace. I want to do that for other people.”
To help others feel less isolated, he worked with the University to record a video for social media about his mental-health struggles. He volunteers with the University’s Peer Learning Advisor program, providing online support and advice to international students. He is also a Peer Health Educator, which involves running mental-health workshops for students.
Wan is acutely aware of the struggles international students have faced during the pandemic, whether they remained in Australia or returned home. He stayed in Sydney so he could complete the practical requirements of his degree. It has been two years since he saw his family in Hong Kong. He deals with homesickness by keeping busy.
He is due to complete his degree next year and is still deciding whether to start work as a physiotherapist or pursue further study in medicine. Whatever he chooses, he hopes to keep helping people.
“Physio appeals to me because it’s all about empowering people to overcome obstacles,” he said. “I want to build those sorts of connections.”