Student profile: UOWx award winner, Joel Coelho reaches for the stars

With a passion to make a difference, a desire to be the CEO of his own social enterprise and one day travel into space – the sky is not the limit for recent mechanical engineering graduate Joel Coelho.

His belief that you can be anything you want is palpable, and his childhood dream to become an astronaut remains firmly in his sights.

Having grown up in a Vasai, outside Mumbai in India, Wollongong was the perfect choice for Joel to do his tertiary studies in Australia. The numerous similarities he observed between his hometown and Wollongong offered a level of comfort, but the main drawcards were the proximity to nature and the more peaceful smaller city lifestyle.

Arriving in 2014 at the age of 17, Joel likened his student journey to a rollercoaster ride - highlighting the struggles and achievements as he was thrust into a life of independence and a distinctly different approach to learning.

“The Indian and Australian education systems are very different, and becoming accustomed to it takes a while, but over time you realise the benefits of the Australian education system.

“When you go back home (to India) and talk to other people, they see the difference in you, the way you speak and the way you communicate, because of the way you have been taught and the way you see the world .

“It’s more of a self-learning process compared to the Indian education system where things are spoon-fed to you.

“Mugging up” - or being given the questions that will be in the exams - is a big thing in India. Unlike Australia where what you’re focusing on isn’t so much the answers but more so the solutions – the procedure of how to get to the answer and it’s understanding that which is really important,” he says.

Joel attributes a large amount of his academic success to peer learning.

“Having friends, your peers, is really helpful, especially those who have been in Australia and studied, it gives you that different perspective because everyone learns differently and it’s really important to bounce ideas off each other.

“That’s why the PASS program is really important because it’s that informal learning environment where you end up learning more than you would by yourself or in a lecture,” Joel says.

When reflecting on his entire UOW academic journey, Joel says the biggest shift he has noticed is his mindset.

“I wouldn’t be able to recognise myself from four years ago. I always say this to people whenever I go home. If you can leave the country, or at least leave the house – try to get out of your comfort zone, because that’s where you really grow and that’s where life begins,” he affirms.

Throughout his four-year undergraduate degree, Joel has been actively involved in the UOWx program.

After clocking up over 30 different jobs at and outside university and having completed more than 1,000 hours of volunteering across the University, Joel was named recipient of the 2018 UOWx Award.

He says his motivation for taking such an active interest in uni life was two-fold.

“Most of the jobs I did weren’t just for personal gain, yes there is the monetary gain and experience of course, but at the end of the day I did those jobs because I could help someone else.

Joel cites his time working at UOW Wellbeing and activities promoting student wellbeing activities on campus, as one of his biggest achievements.

“Having the opportunity to help students like myself, knowing the struggles that I’ve gone through and to help them get out of those struggles was extremely fulfilling,” he says.

As an international student, Joel took the initiative to become an international student mentor for three consecutive years. He views success as not just what can be achieved academically, but also what can be experienced through a cross-section of extra-curricular activities.

“We all have our academic certificates that say we have graduated, but having a certificate that tells future employers the person has done extra-curricular activities outside the academic degree is equally, if not more relevant.

“Your books can only teach you so much, it’s the life skills you use in your workplace that are essential, and I think that’s why I got involved in the UOWx co-curricular activities,” he shares.

Joel achieved the award after fulfilling different activities within the set criteria including; leadership, community engagement service and volunteering, mentoring and educational engagement, and UOWx interactive seminar series.

“It’s not simply volunteering your time; it is making a difference and gaining transferable skills from those experiences, it’s about pushing yourself outside your comfort zone and overcoming your difficulties; it’s about persistence especially when times get tough,” he says.

In terms of his professional pathway, Joel says he was drawn to Mechanical Engineering because unlike other engineering degrees, everything that moves is related to each other.

“It’s that ripple effect which I love observing- when you turn on a light switch, when one gear moves, everything else is affected, so that’s what fascinated me initially.

For students trying to figure out what they’re passionate about, Joel shares some sage advice.

“If you think back to your original goal, the reason why your passion is what it is, that gives you a definitive answer and that really keeps you motivated when things get tough.

“The biggest thing I would encourage both international and domestic students to do is step out of their comfort zone. The other thing I would say is expose yourself to opportunities. As Richard Branson says, if you don’t know the answer, just say yes and figure it out later. There are always opportunities out there if you put yourself out there,” he highlights.

Joel clearly recalls his first maths lecture where a cadet from BlueScope Steel was sharing his experience at the company. It became apparent the cadet opportunity was only available to Australians - a disheartening realisation for Joel as an international student.

Undeterred, and after recently graduating, Joel is now living his first year dream of working at BlueScope as a Mechanical Maintenance Planner and says it’s been the right next step for him.

“Ironically I never applied for the job; they offered me the position based on the people I knew - a testament to the importance of networking.

“I have learned so much in the last eight months beyond what I learned in the last four years of my degree, by applying myself not just academically through my engineering knowledge but also being more confident, talking to people and having that comradery with my team mates,” he shares.

Joel says while this role is exactly where he wants to be right now, however it’s not the end game.

“We all need to keep challenging ourselves, I try to keep pushing myself towards becoming an astronaut one day – but that’s way down the line of course.

“I can close my eyes and imagine myself looking down form the International Space Station and seeing Earth. That is my eventual goal,” he reinforces.

And what’s fuelling this dream is his attitude that anything is possible.

“No is never an answer. Life happens but some things should never change, like aspirations.

“That thing that lit your fire as a kid should always be there to keep the flame burning as you grow old,” Joel says.