Reading, ’riting and relationships

Bernie Sheehan, Ying Wang and Cam Van Hunyh. Photo by: Hannah Jenkins

Bernie Sheehan, Ying Wang and Cam Van Hunyh. Photo by: Hannah Jenkins

In summary: 
  • Ying Wang is a Master of Architecture student and Cam Van Hunyh is a Master of IT student; both are part of the Higher Education Language and Presentation Support (HELPS) Buddy Program
  • Their ‘buddy’ is Bernie Sheehan, a Manager of Digital Skills Development at the ABC, with whom they meet every Thursday in a different cafe near UTS to talk about food, films, politics, culture and everything in between

Ying Wang and Cam Van Hunyh are both international students. Bernie Sheehan is the Manager of Digital Skills Development at the ABC. They’re all part of the Higher Education Language and Presentation Support (HELPS) Buddy Program which matches English-speaking volunteers with international students. Its aim is to help students build their confidence and language skills and to make new friendships in Australia.

Ying Wang Ying Wang

Ying Wang

I'm studying a Master of Architecture and I have many local classmates but, because we work more individually, I don’t really have the chance to make friends with them. When I came here I couldn't understand many simple words, even though I had been learning English for a long time – I think because I learned English in Mandarin. I didn’t have any confidence to speak with any native speaker at the beginning. I couldn’t understand many of the local slang and Australian people tend to speak very quickly – they run their sentences together without pausing.

I’m from north-west China – Lanzhou, it’s the capital of Gansu province. It’s beautiful, but the landscape is entirely different to Australia and it is in the middle of the continent. In the beginning, my parents didn’t understand why I wanted to go abroad and study. Sometimes, when it was hard, I thought, “Oh, my parents are right!” But they are getting to know that I am enjoying new experiences in my life rather than following the expected pathway.

I got involved in the Buddy Program through the HELPS website. International students who take part in the Buddy Program choose a buddy. You meet with them a minimum of six times, normally once a week. The three of us have continued meeting long past the minimum requirement. Bernie, she is really nice and keen to help international students and I think she has enjoyed talking to people from different countries. We meet in a different cafe every Thursday, just to talk and catch up. I like a flat white or a latte and Bernie likes herbal tea, while Van prefers a hot chocolate.

I still remember when I first met Bernie and Van - I was in my second teaching session and Van was in her first. She was stressed out because she faced the same situation I had faced in my first session which is that you can’t understand everything accurately and you also need to set up everything, like how to buy an Opal card. I said when you arrive in your second session you will feel it’s not so hard. She was worried about her marks because if you feel you can’t understand the lecture, how can you pass or get good marks? I think many international students who speak English as their second language went through the same thing. 

Cam Van Huynh Cam Van Huynh

Cam Van Huynh

I'm doing a Master of IT major in software development; this is my second semester. Actually I am a mature student because I already have worked eight years in Vietnam. At the age of 30 I'm thinking because I'm still single, I don't have to take responsibility for everyone rather than myself, so I want to discover more about myself and go overseas to see the world. Because my major is information technology, and of course UTS have good reputation for that field, I decide to come to UTS.

When I first came here I don't have any friends so HELPS Buddy Program actually give me a friend. Bernie and Ying and I we actually chat online on Messenger, we have each other’s phone number so we really are friends. Because we are at the same age it's easy for us to talk. Bernie's a very good person and very nice woman. Bernie likes to hear stories about me and Ying, our home countries, about our culture, background story and sometime we talk about books, and then our ‘game plan’ for the weekend.

Before I came here I quite confident with my English in my home country, but when I come here on the first week I really struggling. I am even talking to myself, “Are they speaking English?” because it's totally different; we study American English in Vietnam. I don't know why we say “no worries” when I say “you're welcome”. And “fair enough”. But day-by-day it feels a bit easier.

I live in Ho Chi Minh City, in the south of Vietnam and I have two younger brothers, so I'm the oldest child of my parents. I call my parents once a week, one or two hours, and with my younger brother we chat on WhatsApp. Because he's first-year student now, he study information technology like me, and after he's graduate we are thinking that maybe he will come here and study a masters.

If I can give advice to any new international student who is struggling, you need to really step out and attend a HELPS conversation class or join the Buddy Program. The more you do it, the more it will be easier for you. And you will surprise yourself when you can talk to people and really build your confidence. You will have friends there. Don't be shy, take the first step and everything will be easier.

Bernie Sheehan Bernie Sheehan

Bernie Sheehan

For years I was part of a mentoring program where I worked with a refugee from Rwanda - she was doing her midwifery degree at UTS and when she graduated I wanted to find someone else to work with. I heard about the Buddy Program from my boss's wife – Joanne Gray – she works at UTS. And Joanne put me in contact with Maryann McDonald at HELPS.

I first met Van in a cafe at UTS and I thought she was the most gorgeous young woman and so bright, but finding it so difficult. In the first session, her English was a little rudimentary but pretty good. She told me a story about her work place in Vietnam, where they have a Monday morning where everyone has to speak English, but she would often be the only person who would speak because they were all too scared. A few weeks later Ying joined us, so the three of us started talking about all sorts of things from food to politics to culture to film - everything.

They're just delightful; really considerate, beautiful people and I feel really lucky. For me, it has just been a real eye-opener. It’s great to see women, both of them, leaving their home countries and doing something so out of the ordinary. It’s extraordinary risk taking for both of them.

Van's working here, at the ABC, now – she's a software engineer and did some work experience for a couple of weeks and they offered her casual work in the digital network team. She's just on the floor above me. Being part of the Buddy Program fits in really well with the strong diversity program we have at the ABC. We’ve just started promoting the Buddy Program at the ABC, so hopefully more people here will get involved.

Recently Ying and Van came for a weekend at my house - I live at Killcare Beach, an hour-and-a-half north on the train. We went bushwalking and my friends cooked dinner. Van and Ying wanted to go to an Australian home because they haven’t been invited to many Australian homes. I’m actually a New Zealander, but I guess it's the same thing! They were so excited. They ate Australian foods, foods they hadn’t had before like lots of kinds of cheeses, hummus, things like that. Next time they come up Ying is going to cook Chinese food. 

I feel like they are my friends now, but they make me feel very old because they send emojis and all sorts of things and I’m trying to keep up! Each week they are so much more confident and so much more articulate. It’s a perfect match for me because it’s two women on their own, doing something pretty adventurous and unusual and creating a new life somewhere. How could you not admire that?!

To access the UTS HELPS Buddy Program over summer or next teaching session, go to