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International students find a place to belong in Geelong

Students from across the world gather twice a week at the Geelong Salvation Army Corps to engage in games and themed activities to foster better connections and relationships.


With the stresses of COVID-19, the isolation of living apart from family and friends, and the strain of handling escalating expenses on a student budget, international students face unique challenges.

When a former student support worker at Deakin University found herself increasingly encountering international students with severe mental health struggles, she knew something had to change.

Helen Nicholls-Stary had observed the success of The Couch program, run as an initiative of the City of Melbourne and The Salvation Army’s Project 614. She wondered if something similar might work in Geelong.

“I thought I need to be more proactive [at] putting in strategies where students are connecting, where they’ve got a safe place that they can come [and] they can talk about concerns with people they trust [who can] link them in with relevant services,” she said.

Helen said because of COVID-19, many students came to Australia to study only for all their courses to be held online. She said language barriers and other struggles could also mean the students weren’t even connecting with their own housemates.

“They might not even be sharing a meal,” Helen said.

Some of the international students who attend the student lounge at Geelong Corps.

She then partnered with The Salvation Army, Study Geelong, The City of Greater Geelong, The Gordon, Deakin University and Deakin College to launch The Lounge program, based on the same model as The Couch. Geelong Food Relief and the Geelong Sikh community also agreed to provide meals.

The first gathering was held on Monday 29 May, and Helen said the team was now seeing 25 to 30 international students at the twice-weekly gatherings held at the Geelong Corps in Malop Street. Helen said the great thing about The Salvation Army’s involvement was that it brought a community of people willing to help.

“We’re open two nights a week, Monday and Thursday, and the format of the evening is that we have activities or a presentation, and we also serve a fresh hot meal,” she said. “That’s really important for international students. Some don’t have that knowledge about cooking local produce, [and] some are experiencing financial insecurity and maybe just living on two-minute noodles or not much at all.

“We’ve got people that come along in the evening that just like to socialise with the international students, and it’s great because this is their chance to meet an Aussie.”

Helen said the team might even develop a friendship program where local families could take students on an outing or for a meal to build connections. She said Deakin University’s health and wellbeing ambassadors also attended gatherings at The Lounge and were trained to notice mental health concerns and link the students with services to assist them.

Salvation Army social mission program adviser Major David Elderidge said The Salvation Army was an ideal lead partner for the program due to its commitment to inclusive practice that recognised and valued diversity alongside shared values of compassion, integrity, respect and collaboration.

“International students will be able to link in with other Salvation Army services as additional supports for international students, including counselling and support for students experiencing financial stress,” David said.

The program currently relies on a Study Melbourne Inclusion Program grant, which is only allocated for 12 months. Helen is currently seeking sponsors to help fund the program.

To find out more about The Lounge and how to be involved, you can contact Helen directly at


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