Elaine Yago, 26 years old, sat across from me at the food court and shared her story as an international student in Melbourne. A couple of times during our chat she broke into tears – the first time, she said, due to the sad memory of her experiences; and the second time, because she’s happy that she’s now in a much better position.
Backtracking to the Philippines in 2018, Elaine was working at an office in Pasig when her cousin offered to sponsor her to Australia as a student. The application was swift – she applied in October and was granted her student visa in the third week of December. By January 2019, she was on a plane to Melbourne just in time for the start of her cookery course.
The day after her arrival, she was already trying to navigate the public transport system to get to her classes.
“I had classes twice a week and had to travel 30-45 minutes by train to Footscray. I got lost a few times, one time ending up in Malvern and another time in Essendon. I was shocked by the Aussie accent, but I had guts. As long as you can read and understand English, you can find your way home.”
Understandably Elaine described her first month as depressing. “I was 91 kilos before I arrived – I quickly lost weight.”
Thankfully she lived with and was supported by her cousin, but it was natural for her to feel lonely. She had left four siblings, her mother, and a boyfriend back home – she was terribly homesick. Going to church at Iglesia ni Cristo helped provide comfort and a reminder for her to place her trust in God.
For a month she struggled to find a job to support herself, and to be able to pay for her own course fees. She didn’t want to be a burden to her cousin, who had already spent for her sponsorship and who also had children to support.
“I went around the city handing out my résumé to more than 20 establishments. I didn’t get any calls.”
Elaine quickly learned how local experience can be a hindrance to getting a job. Eventually, she was able to get a few odd jobs as a kitchen hand and as a hotel room attendant. Her experiences in a few establishments demonstrate the exploitation and vulnerability to which international students can be subjected.
Elaine was driven to a point when she only had $20 in her bank account and a looming deadline to pay for her course fees. “At that point, I wanted to go back home. I asked myself, ‘What will happen to me?’”
“I approached our minister at church and shared my problems. He prayed with me … this was my turning point,” Elaine shared, trying to wipe a sudden overflow of tears.
At this point, Elaine got her job at the vegetable shop, and money from some of her past odd jobs also came in, boosting her remaining $20.
“I’m crying because God didn’t forsake me at that time. Even now He continues to watch over me. During the lockdowns when so many students lost their jobs, I didn’t lose mine and kept working.”
At the vegetable shop, Elaine met a customer who turned out to be a chef for a restaurant. He gave her the opportunity to work as a cook, giving her the work experience related to her course.
Elaine has now completed her Certificates 3, 4, and Diploma in Commercial Cookery and is currently finishing her Advanced Diploma in Hospitality.
Someday she hopes to get her family and partner to join her in Australia.
In 2019, Elaine became a member of the Pinoy International Students Outreach (PISO). Through the group, Elaine was able to connect with fellow students, who shared their own experiences of loneliness and financial challenges, with some even eating only once a day.
“On our first meet-up of PISO, we all cried,” she said.
PISO has connected students during the lockdowns with generous sponsors who provided assistance with groceries and other needs, including emotional and mentorship support.
These days Elaine can look at the PISO Facebook page and feel inspired. “Some of the members have good jobs now and are doing well. I know that before I reach the same status, I have to go through challenges first.”
“I want to share my story because I want to look back someday and say these have been my experiences. I want other students to know they just need to trust God. He won’t give up on you, even if you are giving up.”
Share your story to #pinoysdownunder – firstname.lastname@example.org
First published in The Philippine Times, July 2021 edition
- Merlinda Bobis: Writing about the Philippines – heart, soul, and body
- To be Small is to be Radical
- Telling stories