Increasting Social Connection

Connecting and supporting Ballarat’s international students through establishment of a local hosting program.

Ballarat Buddies Celebration December 2021 crop

Purpose

The Ballarat Buddies for International Students Pilot Program aims to connect socially isolated International Students currently studying at a university in Ballarat with local Ballarat Buddy Volunteers and facilitating group activities for them to connect and feel less socially isolated. This Pilot Program is important for the mental health of International Students. The Ballarat East Neighbourhood House provides a space for International Student participants and local Ballarat Buddy volunteers to meet and get to know each other and develop enduring social bonds through facilitated activities that aim to alleviate social isolation and promote good mental health. 

Register

All International Students studying and/or living in Ballarat are welcome to register for this pilot program: International Student Participants' Registration Form.

Local people living in Ballarat are encouraged to register as volunteers for this important program: Ballarat Buddy Volunteers' Registration Form.

Online Registration should take no more than 10 minutes. If you have any questions or would prefer a paper form, please contact us.

Activities

Activities will be held in Term 1, 2022 at Barkly Square, Ballarat East and at various locations around Ballarat.

From 3.00 pm to 5.00 pm on Thursdays, we will host group activities at Barkly Square, such as board game afternoons, cooking classses, art classes and and introduction to some of our other actvities and classes.

Participants will also be encouraged to meet outside of the structured activities and attend the many free and low-cost events in Ballarat.

Ballarat_Buddies_for_International_Students_for_FB_and_website.jpgParticipant Stories

In early December 2021, the Ballarat East Neighbourhood House hosted an evening picnic to welcome participants to the Ballarat Buddies for International Students Pilot Program (pictured above).

International Students, Asia said, "It was friendly and welcoming in nature, food, jokes, very nice chit-chat and we spent a good time" and Wenting commented that, "It was great to meet people from other cultures." Lulu wrote to us saying that she liked the opportunity to meet "potential friends for the future."

Local Ballarat Buddy Volunteer, Carmel, said, "The hospitality was very welcoming. The food was delicious and carefully considered for a range of tastes. Very comfortable to have short or longer initial conversations with a range of people. Picnic rugs provided to those who wished to use them." Margaret, another Local Ballarat Buddy Volunteer added, "It was really good to meet the students in a friendly, open air environment - enjoyable conversations with the students and staff; delicious food - very well organised get-together. I enjoyed hearing the students' stories, where they are from, how they came to be studying at a Ballarat university and how they were finding living here."

Read the stories from several International Students and Volunteers participating in this pilot project.

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

Ballarat Buddies Fiona and Muskan November 2021 small

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, managed by the Ballarat Regional Multicultural Council, Ballarat East Neighbourhood House and the Centre for Multicultural Youth, all located at Barkly Square, Ballarat East.

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, group activities, people to meet for a coffee, meal, walk or a movie, others to visit the Art Gallery with, shopping, Sovereign Hill, Botanic Gardens and the Wildlife Park. Local Ballarat Buddies can be people 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 people who are 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 June 2022, with the vision for it to be adapted, improved and continued.

Phase 1 - Preparation

  • Ballarat East Neighbourhood House worked with project partners to promote the program to international students and potential volunteers in the Ballarat community.
  • International Student Participants and local Ballarat Buddy Volunteers 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 for all local Ballarat Buddy Volunteers are completed at no cost to the volunteers.
  • Group activities are run to connect the International Student Participants and local Ballarat Buddy volunteers.
  • 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 December 2021, optional group activities are being facilitated by the Ballarat East Neighbourhood House at Barkly Square, Ballarat East. This is for those International Student Participants and Ballarat Buddies who may be more comfortable meeting in groups and participating in organised activities.
  • If required by participants, 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.