Reducing Social Isolation - Connecting and supporting Ballarat’s international students through establishment of a local hosting program

Ballarat Buddies for International Students for FB and website

Read Asia's story - and international student's perspective on this pilot project. If you are interested in this program please contact us for more information and to register. 

Background

In partnership with the City of Ballarat, the Ballarat East Neighbourhood House is looking to support isolated and vulnerable members in our community who have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. International Students in Ballarat have been identified as a key group requiring immediate support.

There are almost 800 International Students at Federation University from a range of countries. There are also international students at Australian Catholic University (ACU) in Ballarat.

Students vary in age and some have partners and children in Ballarat. In 2021, the majority of students are from an Indian background.

Isolation, financial pressures and the stress of the ongoing pandemic crisis around the world are putting many international students in Ballarat at risk of poor mental health.

Ballarat East Neighbourhood House has partnered with the City of Ballarat to respond to this need and develop an ongoing program to support isolated international students. Stakeholders in this project include:

  1. Ballarat East Neighbourhood House
  2. City of Ballarat
  3. Federation University
  4. Australian Catholic University
  5. Ballarat Community Health
  6. Headspace Ballarat
  7. Ballarat Indian Association
  8. Ballarat Regional Multicultural Council
  9. Centre for Multicultural Youth
  10. CAFS - Children and Family Services
  11. A Pot of Courage Café

Issues

1. International Students in Ballarat may face a variety of barriers to making meaningful local social connections. These include:

a. The distance (in particular of the main Federation University campus) to the Ballarat Central Business District (CBD) and other activity locations including the Ballarat Welcome Centre at Barkly Square managed by the Ballarat Regional Multicultural Council.

b. Financial constraints: many International Students have not been able to work or have reduced work hours during the pandemic.

c. Social / language barriers: many international students may find it difficult to make initial connection with others with whom they share an interest in the local community.

2. Although there are many services available to international students, there is a need for a coordinated program to facilitate social connections with members of the broader Ballarat community.

3. Making a meaningful connection with local people may open up many possibilities for international students and their families - invitations to local events, someone to meet for a coffee, meal, walk or a movie, someone to visit the Art Gallery with, shopping, Sovereign Hill, Botanic Gardens and the Wildlife Park. A local Ballarat Buddy can be someone to call for advice on local contacts such as a hairdresser, dentist, GP or where to go for other goods and services in Ballarat. They can also just be someone safe to chat to and to help reduce the feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Project Plan

The 'Ballarat Buddies for International Students' Pilot Program is based on research of similar programs in universities around the world. The Pilot Program will run until December 2021, with the vision for it to be adapted, improved and continued into 2022 and beyond.

Phase 1 - Preparation

  • Ballarat East Neighbourhood House is working with project partners to promote the program to international students and potential volunteers in the Ballarat community.
  • 25 International Students and 25 Volunteer Ballarat Buddies register for the pilot program through the Ballarat East Neighbourhood House.
  • All potential participants are surveyed at the start of the program to benchmark their feelings of social connectedness and confidence to spend time in the broader Ballarat community. They are also asked what they would like to get out of the program.
  • All participants are registered in the Ballarat East Neighbourhood House system. Working With Children Checks and Police Checks are completed at no cost to the participants.
  • Each International Student is paired with a local Ballarat Buddy and encouraged to connect on the phone and via email.
  • All International Students are given information about the local services available including Headspace, Ballarat Community Health, Ballarat Regional Multicultural Council, the Ballarat Indian Association and other relevant groups. Ballarat Buddies are also made aware of these services and groups. Key information will be translated into other languages as required.

Phase 2 - Activation

  • From November 2021, optional group activities will be facilitated by the Ballarat East Neighbourhood House at Barkly Square, Ballarat East. This is for those international students and Ballarat Buddies who may be more comfortable meeting in groups and participating in organised activities.
  • A shuttle bus will run once a week from Federation University and Australian Catholic University to the Ballarat CBD and then to Barky Square. It will arrive at 10.45 am and do the same trip in reverse, departing at 1.45 pm.
  • International students have 3 hours at Barkly Square. They can access the Ballarat Welcome Centre and free activities facilitated by the Ballarat East Neighbourhood House. They will be encouraged to visit the social enterprise café on site (A Pot of Courage Café) and those who can’t afford a meal or coffee can access one free of charge through the ‘Pay it Forward’ wall (where locals donate the cost of a meal and/or coffee).
  • Toward the end of the pilot program, all participants will be asked to complete another survey to reflect any changes in their feelings of social connectedness and how confident they are to spend time in broader Ballarat. They will also be asked how the program may be improved.

Project Goals

  • To respond to the continuing and growing mental health crisis that has occurred as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • To pilot a program to connect socially isolated international students at local universities with local Ballarat Buddies.
  • To make international students feel welcome and connected to the Ballarat community. To give them an opportunity to practise their language skills (relevant to some, not all students).
  • To facilitate appreciation of other cultures by local community members and giving them an opportunity to volunteer and support others in this challenging time.
  • To connect the project partners in working together on this important project, with the potential for future opportunities.

Funding

Funding for this project was received from the City of Ballarat which was funded through the Victorian Government's Community Activation and Social Isolation (CASI) initiative. The CASI project helps people who might be feeling lonely or have lost their regular networks during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.