Sitting in a classroom in Australia’s oldest and prestigious university, I look around the sandstone building, the coat of arms that represents heritage and tradition and pinch myself... I cannot believe it is actually happening.
A week ago, I was in a high-flying job in Dubai with a secure lifestyle. The next, I have deliberately taken the plunge into a deep and dark abyss. I have moved continents, transiting from a working professional to a mature-age student (students who are 21 years of age or older), all in the middle of the world’s bleakest global financial crisis.
I sneak a peek around the classroom and realise the median age of my fellow students is 27 years. My heart sinks. Suddenly, the door opens and in walk three more students. They seem like working professionals — one in her late thirties, another in his early forties and his fellow companion in his early fifties. I heave a sigh of relief... I am not the only ageing dinosaur in the room.
Upskill and invest
It’s been four years since that day, and I live to write about the experience. Pursuing postgraduate studies was always a goal. I always knew I wanted to take a break from my job to upskill and invest in an education, but I also wanted to achieve this dream without being stressed out with student loans and other financial pressures. So while my friends invested in villas and apartments, I worked hard and saved up to take time off work.
There was never a good time to quit work. I had my share of crazy clients and impossible deadlines, but by January 2009 I was beginning to see the effects of the global financial crisis all over the world, especially in Dubai and the surrounding emirates. Every morning I woke up to news of job cuts, companies closing down and people fleeing the country leaving their flashy cars at the Dubai airport. This drove me to evaluate my work-life situation, with a job at MCN Media with the region’s three major media buying agencies. I liked my job and my colleagues, but chances of a raise or a bonus that year were bleak and the possibility of downsizing loomed too close for comfort. The timing could not be more perfect. I decided to quit while I was ahead and pursue a master’s degree in marketing. I figured by the time I graduated and was ready to enter the workforce the global markets would have recovered.
Life as a mature-age student was radically different from what I anticipated. It demanded a new form of discipline. The first few months I struggled with everything: research work, group assignments, complex economic theories and tests. There were days when I barely slept three hours a night while I juggled assignments or waded through an exhaustive list of research papers.
On a personal front I was dealing with living in a new city, mastering public transport, missing Dubai, my friends and my car. I was often on Skype calling my best friend Annie in Dubai, evaluating my decision, second-guessing myself and wondering if I should stay or leave.
Meanwhile, being in a postgraduate programme was quite competitive. My fellow classmates were professionals from Brazil, Japan, Thailand, South Africa, Germany, China and Vietnam. Some days the discussions in the classroom were heated, interesting and insightful and on other days it was frustrating trying to communicate even a simple concept.
Group assignments were challenging, especially trying to agree on common goals and deadlines. There were nights when a group of us would be on conference call via Skype, making sure we met deadlines. Everybody was so competitive about grades and group submissions.
Juggling study and life
Amidst the chaos that was Australia, university and studies were a piece of cake compared to finding a job in Sydney. This market puts an unusual focus on local experience and is quite reluctant to take a chance on a newcomer. As a professional with more than 13 years of experience working in three continents and 12 different countries, I thought working part-time would be easy. Instead, most of the agencies I approached were happy to hire me only as an intern and offered me a work experience certificate instead of a salary.
My visa restrictions meant I could only work 20 hours a week, hence most of the private companies declined to take me on in their marketing and communications team. It made me realise that the job market in Sydney is very insular; if you arrive on-shore from England or America, you can easily break through the red tape and land a job. Otherwise like most postgrad students you score a job on campus and work as cheap labour.
The irony was, even though I was armed with the right qualifications and solid experience, a fresh graduate in Australia had a better chance of finding a job than a mid-level manager from an international market. The situation bothered me immensely.
I was lucky that my mentor at the university was a brilliant and well-networked professor who also offered me my first break in the media and communications team. I worked with her team to successfully rebrand the unit and develop organic growth strategies.
Pleased with my efforts, she recommended me to the University of Sydney’s brand unit who was launching a million-dollar rebranding campaign and was looking for a project officer.
Since then, I have worked in three different companies, all on contract basis. Finding a permanent job has been elusive as you need to be an Australian resident or have a work visa. As a contractor, the pay is low and the hours are flexible, hence it offers very little stability. The new education minister Christopher Pyne promises to repair the international education industry by reforming post-study work rights but that change will take some time… I have decided to move on, put my adventure hat and explore a new market or return home to the sunny sands of Dubai.
If you are thinking about taking the plunge, I would say jump in and learn to swim... life since my decision to study in Australia has been a roller-coaster ride with more ups than downs.