SA Elections 2020/2021: International Students’ Officer Candidates

As the SA Hustings approach, we had a chance to interview the International Students’ Officer candidates, Vartika Khandelwal, Ishika Somarchand and Stephany Shakespeare. During the interview, we got to know them a little better along with their goals and expectations with the ISO.

Interview: Vartika Khandelwal

Why are you running for the position?

“I’m running for this position because I feel like it is something very close to my heart and something that I’m very passionate about. Not only would it give me a lot of opportunities to make life better for international students at UNM but will also help me hone my own skills and use my skills for the benefit of others because I have leadership experience of over 9 years, which would be more beneficial for others more than it is beneficial for me”

What is one strength and one weakness about you?

“I would say leadership because I have leadership experience in 3 countries and 5 cities and I think that is one of my strengths. My weakness is that I’m actually a little bit bad at remembering names so I think that is something that would get in the way.”

What kind of things that the current ISO has done that you could improve?

“I think the induction program could be improved. It could be something a lot better for international students because when I came in I only had one session that was for international students which was kind of a quick briefing on the  health and wellbeing services they distributed a booklet and that was it. So there was no chance to mingle around with people, meet people from our own country. The first time I met people from my country was during the nation’s cup. And I do understand that not everyone would like to take part in the nations cup, some people are just not sporty. I think that people should meet the people from their country before hand during the induction itself and probably have some games like ice breakers, or something that spans throughout the induction week. So that people can open up, meet people from their country, because they might get really homesick during the first few months, because it’s a new country, and there is culture shock. I don’t want international students to face what I have been through. 

Next is careers, I am creating more job opportunities. So I’m doing that in two ways, I’m calling in more companies that employ international students in the Careers Fair next year and also I’m creating a job opportunity for international students for when they go back to their home country. They can choose to promote UNM in highschools in their own country and get paid a huge amount. I’ve talked to the international office and they’ve approved my idea. Otherwise, minor changes to the KL tour because I feel like students should go to places that represent Malaysian culture better. They could always take a bus to visit the twin towers or the KL tower later. Another thing is, sharing sessions I plan to introduce sharing sessions for international students to share how their experience with UNM has been so far. So that we know that they’ve made friends and that their mental health is taken care of mid semester”

“I also plan to have festivals , because international students get very homesick around the festivals, having festivals like Eid or Christmas or Holi would help them. For ICW, I think it is best to represent the countries that are underrepresented and dont have ambassadors. However, I also plan to have a cultural quiz that will promote intercultural awareness and bring people together, and an international beverage day. For the KLIA buses, I plan on creating a form or something to make sure students get into the bus”

How will your events differ from existing events like fresher’s week? 

“I plan to have games that increase cultural integration, so we can divide people into different countries then have like a faceoff or ice breaking games”

You mentioned a huge amount paid to international students promoting UNM in their country, is there a specific amount?

“I’m still talking with the international office regarding that, they initially mentioned an amount of a thousand dollars a day which I think is a huge amount. Our expenses for a whole semester are around that amount, but it’s  still under negotiation. it might be less it might be more.”

What problems do you think are being faced by the international students on campus?

“I’ve heard some cases of racism although it is not too much on our campus, if I feel that it is really severe, it goes under my job prospects to organize campaigns against racism and discrimination.”

What kinds of campaigning activities have you been doing?

“It is just the second day of campaigning. I’m glad that I’ve been able to give a speech to 9 classes and explained to them what my campaign is about. I’ll also be distributing flyers and putting up my posters soon. People can follow me on my social media @vartika.for.iso, I will keep updating it daily and it’s gonna be a very fun platform not serious stuff.”

Do you think that there is intolerance, bigotry and discrimination against international students on campus?

“The cases I’ve heard aren’t the most extreme cases. I’ve heard about people being left out in class or people not trying to approach them. Despite that, they do still have friends, that’s why I said that it is not that extreme. Although I feel that students should interact with international students and not discriminate against them”

How do you plan to organise campaigns to combat intolerance, bigotry and discrimination of international students?

“Campaigns could be like having a week where we raise awareness, kind of like black history month and raising awareness like having posters, talks, forums, booths around SA circle or an event to raise awareness about the different races around the world.”

Are you familiar with the ambassadors-for-each-country system on campus? Do you think that you will be able to make improvements on the system?

“Currently the ambassadors do not have a role within the cultural society itself. We could integrate them or give the ambassador a position within the society, it will be really helpful for nations cup or international cultural night etc” 

What kind of sites do you suggest outside of KL?

“I plan on sites like Ipoh or Malacca because it really represents Malaysian history and culture well. Sites around KL that are not often explored by international students like the museum or the aquarium are more exciting, rather than just going to a tower and getting a picture. Or even going to places like Sabah and Sarawak. I haven’t finalized the sites yet because it’s still under negotiations with the international office.”

Why do you think that you are the right candidate for this and why should people vote for you and not the other candidates?

“I think what sets me apart from the others is that I have lived in 9 cities and 3 countries. This experience of living in such multicultural societies has made me accept people from all backgrounds and walks of life. I have experience with mingling with people, getting to know people. I’ve had to change cities every two years and it’s not as easy as it looks. It’s not all wanderlust and happiness. It is very difficult integrating into a new culture. Having faced culture shock time and time again in my life, I feel that I can be only of help to people who face that when they move to Malaysia. For some of them it might be their first experience in a country abroad. Most of the changes that I plan to introduce don’t necessarily fall under my job description, like the sharing sessions or creating jobs. But they are for the general wellbeing of international students because that is something that I really stand for and genuinely care about. My job description does not have to define all I’m going to do. I can do much more, it’s all about thinking outside the box.”

What is your take-home message to the readers reading this?

“I really hope that you vote for the right candidate for ISO. It will really impact your wellbeing in the upcoming year. Having just one person as a representative of this university that I feel is a melting pot of cultures is a lot of responsibility. I really hope they can choose their candidate very wisely,  someone they feel like they can relate to, and be friends with so that their opinions are attended to. And I feel like I would do a great job at listening to people. I mean, I do psychology and it comes a part of my job description so, 

“vote for the right candidate and have a great year ahead”.

Interview: Ishika Somarchand

Tell us a little bit about yourself

“My name is Ishika Somarchard, first year Applied Psychology & Management student from Mauritius. Mauritius is a very diverse country, and for example, my father is Hindu and my mother is an African Christian. I am a mixed child so diversity is very important because that’s how I grew up. My first language is actually French, and I also speak Spanish and Mauritian Creole.”

Why are you running for the position?

“I am currently in the activities network office so I know the workings of what happens in SA. I am also someone who is very involved in academics and other things around me. I am an international student and I used to struggle to make friends at private school because I had anxiety issues. It’s my experiences that make me believe that I will be able to sympathise with the issues that the other international students face. I am also a Psychology student and I can understand people well. Even though I have anxiety issues, I will always stand up for other people and defend them.”

You mentioned that you are currently a part of the Activities Network, so why have you chosen to run for ISO instead of remaining in the Activities Network?

“I felt very comfortable in the Activities Network, but I don’t feel like I have the exact skills needed for the Activities Network as I do for ISO. I feel more comfortable being in contact with the international students and I believe that if you want to be a good representative of something, you have to care deeply about it, and I just simply care more about ISO.”

What is one strength and one weakness about you?

“My strength is also my weakness, and that is that I care a lot about other people and I’m really sensitive. I think it depends on how you use those can be a strength or a weakness. I try to use it as a strength to understand what people need and how I can help them. However, I can also be overly sensitive and I tend to feel bad when another person feels bad.”

What kind of things that the current ISO has done that you could improve?

“I think he has done an excellent job, but I feel that he puts a lot of focus on the stricter and academic side of things. I differ in that sense because I think I am more “get-to-know-you” type of person. I also mention this in my manifesto that I would like to include a few new things that have not yet been implemented. I believe that these new things I have planned could be very great, in particular the event for the first semester. I think since that cultural societies tend to need funds for their activities at the beginning, having events earlier in the academic year would allow them to get some funds.

So in your manifesto, you listed this as being the autumn event. How would this event differ from the ICW/ICN that happens in the spring semester?

“The whole idea of this event is going to be completely different. I see the ICW/ICN as being very focused around the arts, singing, poems, and dancing. And what I propose instead is food. I found out that what usually gathers people is food, especially people at UNM. The event would be to allow the showcasing of food from around the world, it would also allow clubs to gather some funds at the beginning of the semester. To spice it up a little, it would also be a competition between the main dish, drink and dessert from each country. We could also organise different workshops to try to recreate these dishes. The whole idea is that it’s supposed to be a whole week of mixing together, and eating good food.”

What problems do you think are being faced by the international students on campus?

“The main problem is the late arrival students and it has been a long recurrent problem that I think we need to end. I have spoken to the current ISO, and he has mentioned that it is quite challenging to tackle this issue because administration is not allowed to give out names of students. Because of that, it is difficult to reach out to the students who are late and require help. This is one area that is also very large in my manifesto as I believe that more contact has to be given to these students. I hope to accomplish this through giving them an email address early on, or maybe being their first friend when they land in Malaysia because I think that’s the hardest part to adapting to a new country. I just want to be an anchor for these students.”

What kinds of campaigning activities have you been doing?

“I have an Instagram page, @ishika_iso, where I have been posting my poster and manifesto. I plan to keep my page updated with the hustings and to ask what people want from me as an ISO. My goal with my Instagram page is to introduce myself to the best of my ability because what would be the point in electing someone you don’t know? I am also very friendly and I have also been talking to some people. I might not smile a lot when I’m walking around but I am actually a really friendly person.”

Your slogan for your campaign is “East or West, vote Ishika for the best!”. Is there a meaning behind this slogan?

“Actually, I couldn’t think of a slogan at first so I asked one of my friends, who happens to be Indian. She told me that apparently in India, they put “East or West, vote XXX for the best” on everything. So I thought what would be more fitting for an international student than East or West?”

Do you think that there is intolerance, bigotry and discrimination against international students on campus?

“I don’t think it really happens, at least from my personal experience and from what I’ve gathered from other international students. I think that we are pretty well welcomed by the Malaysians here. Everyone kinda mixes together. I feel like when you travel to another country, you will have to mix with others, and we chose Malaysia for a reason. Since Malaysia is already a culturally diverse country, the atmosphere is already very welcoming. However, I remain an open person, and if anything does happen, I want to be able to be there to talk and to help out. If I get elected, I would be adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards discrimination because I feel that respect is the main value. Human beings are equal so we should respect your equal. I don’t think you should treat someone differently just because they are from somewhere else.”

Are you familiar with the ambassadors-for-each-country system on campus? 

“Yes I am. The president of the Mauritius society is also the ambassador for the Mauritius student community so I am pretty familiar with what they do. I have also been very involved in these activities like the Nations Cup and the ICN. 

Do you think that you will be able to make improvements on the system?

“First of all, I think that people should talk to their ambassadors and tell them to be more involved. As university students we already have so many things to do, but I feel that the communication between the ISB and ambassadors does not involve the students directly, which I think that is quite a shame. I think that by providing a platform for these ambassadors to communicate with the students would improve the situation. Sometimes it’s not just the ambassadors fault as there are just too many students, so I think the ambassador should be given the contacts of these students so they can keep in contact.”

The theme of “late arrival students” seems to be a recurring topic for you, is there a reason you feel so strongly about this?

“Yes, I actually arrived 2 weeks late because I had a French baccalaureate certificate, and it wasn’t in English. At that time, I had not received it yet because it was supposed to be sent from France and because of that, I had some difficulties with the Malaysian government. In the end, I had to go to my own government to get a letter. Since this issue is something I care deeply about, I think it allows me to fight for it best. Someone once told me that I should choose my battles, and I chose this battle. However, that doesn’t mean that I do not care about other issues, the ultimate goal is to take care of everyones’ well being.”

Why do you think that you are the right candidate for this position and why should people vote for you and not the other candidates?

“I think I am the right candidate because I care for others and I value cultural diversity a lot. I don’t just say this because it’s a common value, but because I grew up around it and it’s in my DNA. I am also someone who is willing to run the extra mile for those I care about, and I would care for all the international students. I am also really approachable and I feel like my training in Psychology allows me to connect with the other people. I know the role of the ISO is very busy and I will do my best to make time for everyone and to be completely open with everyone. 

I don’t think it’s my place to tell people to not vote for the other candidates. But just come to the hustings, ask me questions, get to know me, and if you think I’m reliable, vote for me. You wouldn’t vote for someone who doesn’t understand you but, you would vote for someone who you know. And hopefully after the hustings you will know me better. Even if they don’t come to the hustings, they can always contact me on Instagram and talk to me. Furthermore, people will also vote for someone who shares the same values as they do. So if you value respect, communication, friendliness, caring for each other, and cultural diversity, then I’m the right candidate for that.”

What is your take-home message to the readers reading this article?

“Whether you are an international student, or if you’re a local who cares about your international friends, the ISO will impact the wellbeing of everyone. You should definitely consider taking me as your ISO because I am someone caring and someone friendly. When I really want something, I really run the extra mile. I do whatever I have to do, except being mean to the other candidates, because I will never say anything mean about them. Otherwise, east or west, vote Ishika for the best!”

Interview: Stephany Shakespeare

Tell us a little bit about yourself

“I am Stephany Shakespeare, and yes it is my surname. I am from Sri Lanka and I’m doing a 2nd year in Electrical and Electronic Engineering, which is my passion. Also, I do music outside of school which is another one of my passions. Besides that, I am currently running for ISO!”

Why are you running for the position?

“I am an international student myself and being around the other international students help me understand what they go through and I figured that we need a voice. The current ISO has been doing a great job and I intend to keep doing what he does, and at the same time resolve the issues that are prevailing right now.”

Why are you specifically running for ISO and not any other position in the SA?

“In the last elections, I saw the results being announced in the cafeteria and I thought to myself “Next year, this is going to be me!”. I was going to run for Educations Officer, because I love the course that I am doing, but with time, I realised that I had a different approach as a person. I love making connections, making friends from different countries, and learning what they go through. It’s a very different experience because we all come from a different place. So I thought, I should do ISO because I think I’d do better in ISO than in Education.”

What is one strength and one weakness about you?

“I can be too much of a perfectionist sometimes. I have a knack for looking at details and correcting small things, which can be a bad thing when I’m trying to lead a team. My strength is that I am a team player and I like working with people. I love making connections and friends.”

What kind of things that the current ISO has done that you could improve?

“From what I’ve heard, both from the current ISO and the international office, one thing that could be rectified is the potential incoming students. There are always late comers and they don’t get the same induction that the rest of us get, so they don’t really understand what’s going on. As I mentioned in my manifesto, I intend to digitise an international student “cheat sheet” that will allow students to receive help before they arrive here.” 

What problems do you think are being faced by the international students on campus?

“I think it’s the lack of exposure for the minority communities. The events we have right now seem to be usually taken over by the larger communities so the minority groups don’t seem to get much chance to showcase their cultures. I plan to have an event where it would be all-inclusive, with focus on the minority cultures which would happen in the first semester.”

What kinds of campaigning activities have you been doing?

“I have been using social media and you can find me @stephany4iso. Apart from that, we’re also planning to do class bashings once my posters are ready, and then we also plan to make a video with all my friends from different countries.”

Do you think that there is intolerance, bigotry and discrimination against international students on campus?

“I believe that this issue is prevailing everywhere, so it is not something that we can resolve entirely. However, we will still take the necessary action to stop such actions. If I get elected, I will take it to the relevant authorities.”

Are you familiar with the ambassadors-for-each-country system on campus? Do you think that you will be able to make improvements on the system?

“Yes I am. However I believe that there is a bit of a gap between the ambassadors and the cultural societies. The clubs and societies have their own presidents, but for the ICN, I believe that a bridge is needed between the clubs and the ambassadors to take the event to the next level. I plan to have a round table every month where the ambassadors will sit together with the ISO to communicate any issues and to resolve them that way.”

In your manifesto, you referred to the minority societies. In your opinion, who do you think the underrepresented societies are?

“Some countries have very few students and they do not have an ambassador or club to represent them, such as Brunei, Vietnam or Zambia. I believe that inclusivity should include not only the major clubs, but also the minority groups. They might feel shy because they are not great in numbers, so my events will cater towards including all these groups of people.”

Why do you think that you are the right candidate for this position and why should people vote for you and not the other candidates?

“I am great at time management and organisation. I am a neat freak and need everything to be done on time and to be organised. I believe this role will require good time management and organisational skills to make the right compromises and sacrifices where necessary. I can also be a good team player and a good team leader, and I know when to take on each role. I also believe that if you want change, I will be able to make that change because I believe that I serve all students, international and local. I am also very approachable and I can be the voice for the students.”

What is your take-away message to the readers reading this article?

“Embrace our differences and unity in diversity. Our differences are what makes us come together.”

Written by Fatma Whaleed and Jonas Ho.

Photos by Muhammad Al-Amari.

Comments are closed.