Studying international relations in a foreign country was an unlikely choice for Australian National University student Fang Fang. The Chinese native hails from what she calls the “small” city of Wuhu, population 3.7 million.
“When I was living in Wuhu, my life is nothing international,” Fang says.
“We don't have a lot of foreigners in that particular area. My English is not very good.”
Fang started learning English in Grade 3 – well behind a lot of the Chinese friends she made in Australia, who she says began in kindergarten.
“Some people are good at English, some people are good at maths and other subjects. For me, I have never been attracted to the English language so I’m not good at English since the very beginning,” she says.
Still, she made her way to Australia, and to the ANU, where she embarked upon a Flexible Vertical Double Degree in International Relations.
“I chose to study in a foreign country because I want to know the difference between the western perspective of the world and the Chinese one,” Fang says. “I chose ANU because it has a world-class International Relations ranking.”
“Also, ANU is located in Canberra. There are a lot of embassies, international non-government organisations and intergovernmental organisations in Canberra, so I thought if I studied in Canberra, I could experience not just student life, but maybe get experience with those international organisations.”
Fang’s family was happy about her studying at ANU. However, they repeatedly expressed their concerns over whether her journey would go smoothly because of her limited English.
“When I first came to Australia I couldn't understand people because of their accent,” Fang remembers. “I studied English with an English accent.”
For her first seven months in Australia, she did a homestay, living with a diplomat and her farmer-husband.
“He had a very strong accent,” Fang recalls. “I knew when he called me, but I couldn't tell what he was saying. So that was a struggle.”
These struggles carried over to classes. In her first year, she felt the need to prepare each of her answers to the pre-assigned questions in advance of her tutorials.
“Then once the tutor asks the question, I need to speak what I think immediately,” Fang says. “Otherwise, other people will get the question and move the topic to another place, so I can't catch up.”
In her second year, things came to a head for Fang. In one group assignment in an advanced class, Fang found she couldn’t keep up with the discussion the other group members were engaging in. Her group consequently complained that she didn’t contribute.
“They thought that I was not preparing for the meeting,” Fang explains. “In fact, the direction of topics shifted too fast that I did not have time to organise my language.”
“After my team members complained about me, I went home and cried. I thought my English would never improve.”
This incident turned into something of a turning point for Fang.
“This good cry released my sadness and anger out,” she says. “I started thinking about how to improve my English skills.”
She conducted a search and found various English language programs offered at ANU.
“By participating in these programs, I can properly express my academic thoughts. My paper can get HDs. I even started my academic projects.”
Three years on, Fang is now graduating with the Bachelor’s portion of her degree in December. She begins her Masters degree next year, and is glad to have one more year to decide what she wants to do professionally.
Even though her studies haven’t ended, graduating with her first degree is still a momentous occasion for Fang.
“I think it’s marvellous,” she says, smiling. “I finally did it.”
Fang has some thoughts on the incoming international students who will walk in her shoes – and a message for them
I think sometimes international students’ English ability drags down their academic performance,” she says. “They have deep thoughts but they do not always express themselves precisely due to limited language ability.”
“I hope that my experience will inspire students who are struggling with language deficiency and encourage them to take a step forward and improve their language skills in order to better pursue their dreams.”