9 May 2014

International Newcastle 2: Interview with UoN students advocate Eduardo Carvajal

Eduardo Carvajal is the international convener of the Newcastle University Student Association (NUSA) From campaigning for the safety of students to organising salsa parties at the Students Union, his role surely keeps him busy but he loves it. I talked to him about his life in Newcastle.

How long have you lived in Australia? I came here from Santiago de Chile in 1986. 

Why did you choose to come to Newcastle? I was living in Sydney, where I worked as an industrial mechanic. In 1990 the company I was working for moved to Newcastle. On top of that there was a job crisis. I had a child on the way and found myself wondering whether to stay in Sydney and risk losing my job or to leave. I decided to leave Sydney and come to Newcastle.

How does Newcastle compare to your home place in Chile? It’s incredibly different. I think Latin-America is chaotic. You are always running from one place to another. There is also a lot of socioeconomic inequality, which means you need to fight really hard to get things, especially if you come from a working class family with lots of siblings, like me.

Tell me about your work at Newcastle University: I always had an interest in human rights and social justice. When Pinochet’s dictatorship ended in 1990, I started to focus that interest onto more local causes. It was then that I volunteered to advocate for both Australian and international students at a local, state and national level via NUSA. It’s a voluntary role that I enjoy and which has allowed me to continue studying at the university. Through NUSA I support undergraduate and postgraduate students. The help covers assistance with academic issues and also with finding accommodation or accessing health care. I also organize a free BBQ every week, which I know helps a lot of students who, believe it or not, may be struggling financially. One of the successes I’m most proud of is when in 2012 10,000 student visas were revoked by the government and thanks to NUSA campaigning alongside other student organisations nationally the students got their visas back.

Have you seen changes in the way Australians welcome foreigners during the time you’ve been here? When I arrived in Australia I came almost as a refugee. At the time I was considered a “freedom fighter,” which implied lots of respect and status.

Some people believe that foreign students may get a privileged treatment at the university, as they pay high fees to study here and it’s in the university’s interest to keep them happy. What would you say to them? After having worked with them for 10 years, I can assure you there’s no preferential treatment. In fact, as they can’t vote, they don’t get as much attention from politician. International students pay three times as much as local students, which goes against that idea that they get to pass exams when they don’t deserve to, as there’s actually an incentive to fail students repeatedly so that they keep on paying. There’s this view that international students are privileged rick kids but many are supported by their villages, their families or their governments to come here. Regarding accommodation, if a student is Norwegian, Swedish or American, they are often treated very differently to how Chinese or Saudi students are treated. It’s harder to find accommodation if you’re Chinese, which means too many students end up living in the same house. Saudi students may be perceived as having more money and be charged more for their rent. Some students may even suffer exploitation in their jobs.

Do you ever think of going back to Chile? Not for good. I’ve visited three times since I live in Australia. I’d like to go back every year but it’s expensive. I’m going to Brazil in June though, and that’s relatively close to home.

When you first arrived in Newcastle, you were surprised by…... finding Chileans. In fact finding Latin-Americans in general.

The most unique thing about Newcastle is...how calm it feels…and also, I’m afraid, a degree of covert racism.

Of Newcastle you love…... being able to own my house and live in a close community. It’s easy to get involved in social networks and activities. ‘Here you’re a person.’