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From my earliest days in China, I was sensitive to injustice, compelled by a deep-seated desire to stand up for the underdog and challenge bullies. This drive to act, often against the advice to only look after myself, was intrinsic to my character. Despite being discouraged from intervening, I couldn’t ignore the unfairness I witnessed in daily life, whether on the streets or online, always striving to advocate for those who could not.

The educational environment in China exacerbated these challenges. Students, including myself, endured immense stress due to a rigorous academic schedule that demanded over fourteen hours of study daily, from early morning till late at night. This relentless pursuit of academic excellence was not about nurturing individual talents but about achieving high scores through repetitive practice and intense competition. Our teachers, under their own pressures, often fostered a toxic atmosphere of rivalry. Monthly parent meetings were particularly distressing, where teachers would publicly shame the parents of students who performed poorly, using humiliation as a misguided incentive for improvement.

These experiences not only strained my mental and physical health, leading to insomnia and stomach issues, but also isolated me due to my outspoken nature. My willingness to speak out against this oppressive system often put me at odds with school authorities, making my school years a period of significant challenge and isolation. Yet, despite these difficulties, I never ceased advocating for change, though it often meant facing significant personal and academic consequences.

A significant change came during my high school years when I met Mr. Liang Zhang, a form class teacher who recognized and valued my passion for reform. His acknowledgment felt like a beacon of light in the oppressive darkness of my earlier schooling. Mr. Zhang not only appreciated my willingness to challenge the status quo but also entrusted me with the role of class representative. This role provided me with an outlet to help my classmates, from organizing study sessions to ensuring quiet rest periods. Surprisingly, these added responsibilities did not hinder my academic performance; instead, I emerged as one of the top students in my class.

Mr. Zhang’s encouragement was pivotal. He urged me to explore beyond the confines of our educational system and to utilize my potential fully. Inspired by his support, I decided to continue my education abroad, which led me to Christchurch Boys’ High School in New Zealand. The contrast in educational environments was stark. The Western system I encountered was nurturing and encouraged creativity, operating within a more relaxed schedule that allowed students to pursue personal interests and hobbies outside of the standard curriculum hours.

However, this transition was not without its challenges. My limited English skills initially made integration difficult, and the school’s support systems, while well-intentioned, were not fully equipped to bridge this gap. Despite these obstacles, I met Dr. Bruce Harding, who became a significant mentor in my life. Dr. Harding dedicated his personal time to help improve my English, patiently working with me to translate my thoughts from Chinese to English and significantly enhancing my communication skills. His mentorship was instrumental when I decided to deliver a speech at a school assembly, attended by over 2,000 students. This event marked a major milestone, as it led to my election as the first international student to be a board of trustees student representative in the school’s history, securing one-third of the votes against eight other candidates.

These experiences affirmed my belief in the power of supportive educational environments, which not only foster academic success but also personal growth and confidence. They solidified my resolve to bring such positive changes back to China, where I envisioned creating spaces that could nurture the potential of each individual.

Upon my return to China, I was confronted with a significant personal challenge. My grandmother, who had been deeply affected by the loss of my grandfather in 2016, was in a vulnerable state, both physically and emotionally. I assumed the role of her primary caregiver, a responsibility that profoundly shaped my understanding of care and compassion. This period was both demanding and enlightening, as I navigated the complexities of elder care, striving to improve her quality of life and alleviate her loneliness. My dedication to her well-being during this time deepened my appreciation for the psychological and social aspects of caregiving, sparking an interest in exploring these themes academically.

This experience was pivotal in guiding my decision to study psychology, seeking to better understand the nuances of human behavior and mental health. The emotional resilience and practical skills I developed while caring for my grandmother underscored the importance of supportive systems in addressing individual needs, setting the stage for my academic pursuits at the University of Queensland (UQ).

Choosing the UQ for my Bachelor’s degree in psychology was driven by several factors, primarily the warmer weather compared to New Zealand and Brisbane’s appeal as a larger, more vibrant city than Christchurch. My initial three months in Brisbane were spent in a bridging course, an exciting introduction to university life and a new city. However, the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020 abruptly shifted my academic experience to online learning, a challenge compounded by the constant stream of distressing news and the isolation imposed by lockdown policies.

This period heightened my awareness of the widespread lack of support many people faced daily, not just in mental health but in practical aspects of life. Returning to UQ in Brisbane in July 2022, amid ongoing COVID-19 concerns and economic uncertainties, I was struck by the continuing needs within the community. It was then that I discovered the UQ Union’s free dinner service. The meals, especially the sweet and chili chicken, were not only delicious but also a financial relief, helping me manage my limited budget. UQ Union’s support extended beyond these meals, offering free bread and vegetables on weekends, which helped students save further and reduce waste.

The UQ Union’s efforts to foster a sense of community and support didn’t stop at providing meals. They hosted cultural festivals and events that brought together students from diverse backgrounds, helping alleviate feelings of homesickness and building a more inclusive community. These initiatives were invaluable to me and many others, providing comfort and a sense of belonging during a tumultuous time.

Moved by the immense support I received, I became deeply involved in volunteering with the UQ Union. My activities ranged from helping at breakfast and dinner services to assisting in organizing cultural and academic events. This was my way of giving back, of contributing to the community that had supported me so significantly. My commitment led to over 165 hours of volunteer work in 2023 alone, an effort that was recognized when I was awarded the “Volunteer of the Year” by the UQ Union. This honor was a profound validation of my efforts and a reflection of the impact one can have within their community.

Under the leadership of Richard Lee and Angus McRae in 2023 and 2024, the welfare initiatives at UQ Union expanded even further. The Union became the only university union in Australia to provide free breakfast and dinner five days a week during the semester, setting a standard of student support unmatched by even prestigious institutions like Yale and Harvard. These experiences at UQ have not only shaped my academic and professional path but have also deeply influenced my personal values and commitments.

Moreover, my academic tenure at UQ has been pivotal in equipping me with the skills necessary to pursue a career in social work. The courses I took significantly deepened my understanding of the societal impacts of mental health, housing, and social justice issues. A key part of my undergraduate experience was my participation in a summer research scholarship led by James Kirby, an associate professor and clinical psychologist. The project focused on the psychological impacts of inadequate housing on young adults. Professor Kirby’s guidance was invaluable; he was not only a mentor but also a constant source of encouragement and insightful advice that steered us toward success in our research. His support allowed me to contribute meaningfully to a project that had tangible implications for social policy and practice.

This research was instrumental in solidifying my passion for social work. It revealed the complex roots of mental health issues in Australia, showing that they stem from a mixture of physical and psychological factors, rather than being mere outcomes of maladaptive behaviors. This understanding has shaped my approach to social work, emphasizing the need for comprehensive support systems that address both physical and mental health needs.

My experiences at UQ, from academic achievements to the support I received from the UQ Union, have profoundly influenced my decision to continue my education here. The sense of community and the extensive support provided by the UQ Union during challenging times played a significant role in my choice. It felt like home—a place where I am understood and where I can contribute meaningfully. This sense of belonging and the opportunity to make a difference have led me to pursue a Master’s in Social Work at UQ, confident that this is where my career will truly begin.

Looking to the future, I am committed to contributing to the development of support systems in Australia and globally. I aspire to foster a world where support structures are universally accessible and kindness transcends cultural and national boundaries. My journey has taught me the transformative power of supportive communities, and I am eager to advocate for and implement policies that promote global well-being.

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