Some students start university with an abundance of confidence and an eagerness to participate. Others take a little longer to settle in and find their feet.
We aren’t going to sugar coat it – starting uni somewhere new, whether you’re an undergrad or postgrad, can be tough. You need to be constantly ‘switched on’, meeting new people, finding your way around campus and staying on top of your study. It’s a lot. And it can be even tougher when English is your second language and you’re naturally a little shy.
Yongxin Huang (known as Missy to her friends) was on the shy side when she began her Master of Sustainable Energy as an international student at UQ. But she found ways to build her confidence and find her feet at university, with a little support from her friends, classmates and professors. She wants to share her story with other prospective UQ students to help them get through that tough period, so they can discover their community and confidence, just like she did.
A rocky start
“I still remember the nervous feeling I had, when I walked into the classroom for the first time 2 years ago,” says Missy.
“At that time, everything was new for me, and I didn’t feel I could talk to the other students because of my Chinese accent.”
When Missy undertook the Master of Sustainable Energy (MSE), she had no background in the energy sector, having studied marine science in China. Because of this and her hesitancy to speak up in tutorials, she regularly hid in the corner of the classroom, diligently taking notes but avoiding conversation with her fellow classmates.
“When some of my classmates talked to me, I just said ‘hi’ before escaping to the restroom. It was a terrible first week.”
Feeling embarrassed and wanting to avoid further uncomfortable situations, Missy chose to take her second course online.
“I know this happens to lots of international students – I just had no idea what to do.”
As Missy's experience exemplifies, not everyone has a great first week – or even first month – at university. But the important thing to remember is that it will get better. And there are ways you can help speed along the good times too.
Missy thought she would drift along unnoticed, completing her studies online. This didn’t quite work out as she anticipated, however.
“The course coordinator, Dr Tony Heynen, contacted me and asked why I hadn’t come to the uni,” she says.
“I was surprised that he even remembered me, as I hadn’t spoken a word.”
Tony encouraged Missy to come back to class in person, interact with her classmates and speak up during tutorials.
“Without Tony's encouragement, I would have been taking classes remotely online for the past 2 years, rather than coming to the beautiful campus and interacting with knowledgeable classmates and professors.”
Missy says her classmates were enthusiastic and encouraging too, listening patiently as she improved her English and contributed to lessons. Gradually, she got to know them better, sharing Chinese culture with them and learning more about their backgrounds too.
When Missy gave her first presentation to the class in English, it was a huge turning point.
“After presenting, I received more than 10 messages from my classmates congratulating me,” she says.
“Encouraged by this, I started to practise more English and read news about the Australian energy sector to educate myself.”
Missy continued to become more confident, not only in her English-speaking skills, but also in her studies. She went on to lead a group assessment and feel comfortable speaking to a wide range of people in her everyday life.
“For the first month in Brisbane, I didn't even dare to answer a phone call from a stranger, but today I can articulate my point of view on any occasion,” she says.
“It's no exaggeration to say that I've grown more self-confident in Australia in the past 3 years than I have in the past decade, and the ones that helped me the most were Tony and my lovely classmates from MSE.”
Avoiding lapses in confidence
It wasn’t all happy days and rainbows from there onwards though. There were moments when Missy wanted to retract back into her shell. But it was the supportive community she had built up around her that kept her from hiding when the going got tough.
“During my first brave escape from my comfort zone, I made many friends from all over the world who were like my family in Australia,” Missy says.
She explains that whenever she felt her confidence lapsing, she remembered all the love and support she had received from these friends. Despite knowing it would be easier to hide away again, she focused on how the community around her strove to make her feel welcome, comfortable and accepted, and kept moving boldly forwards.
From shy Master’s student to go-getting PhD candidate
“This scholarship provides me with a lot of opportunities for industry contact.” says Missy.
“I have also attended entrepreneurship workshops to help me build my leadership skills and confidence to adapt to my future career.”
Missy has big dreams of commercialising her project.
“It may be difficult to commercialise the project I am doing, but I would love to be the first person to do so.”
We’re sure that with the skills she has developed through leadership and entrepreneurship training, combined with her knowledge and experience, she will continue her movement upwards in the sustainable energy field.
Missy’s tips for shy new students
1. Don’t be afraid to speak and practise English if it’s your second language.
“I have lived in Brisbane for 3 years and I have never met anyone who laughed at my English speaking,” says Missy.
“Everyone listened to me patiently and gently, and then gave me encouragement and told me that I had done a great job.”
2. Be brave and take the first step towards meeting new people.
“This is very, very important. You will find people in Brisbane, whether they are classmates, professors from the uni, or the doctors from the clinic."
Every connection could lead to another, and then another. But you need to take the first step and introduce yourself to kickstart the momentum.
3. Seek friendships with students from all different cultures.
Missy encourages all students to reach outside of their comfort zone and make friends with people from all different cultures, not just their own. She explains that it can be all too easy to just hang out with people from your home country or culture, but this can defeat the purpose of being at university and experiencing new things. For international students, she has specific advice:
“I believe that the original intention of everyone studying abroad is to broaden their horizons, so please make an effort to escape from your comfort zone. There are so many nice Queenslanders who will show you how beautiful this city is.”
4. Join clubs, societies and groups that align with your interests.
UQ has over 200 clubs and societies covering a huge range of hobbies, interests and professions where you can meet like-minded people and connect over shared interests.
“I've always had a passion for the ocean, and UQ's efforts to protect the ocean has always made me proud,” says Missy.
“I joined the Marine Club and there were many ocean-related activities and trips that taught me how wonderful the marine world is in Australia.
“I also met some diving and fishing friends, and we often go out to sea, which let me know how diverse and wonderful Australia's underwater world is.”
It's no exaggeration to say that I've grown more self-confident in Australia in the past three years than I have in the past decade.
Yongxin Huang (Missy)
Master of Sustainable Energy and PhD Candidate
Finding your community at UQ
UQ is a community where you can truly belong. We celebrate diversity and support you to thrive.
“I feel safe, respected and welcomed at UQ. I have never been excluded because I am from another country,” says Missy.
“I believe that by studying here, I’m keeping my mood in a good state every day, not just because of the beautiful campus, but also because of the people.”
It took Missy a little time to find her feet at UQ, and it may take you time to settle in and feel comfortable too. Everyone moves at different paces and that’s completely OK. The important thing is to make the effort to step out of your comfort zone every now and then and connect with others. You might find yourself pleasantly surprised by how many people want to really get to know you.