It is Sarah Lisle's mission to help students make connections. As the Lead of Student Programs (International) at UOW, she spent her days working alongside her team to help students fully embrace their university experience—from study programs to social activities, student accommodation arrangements and beyond.
But after meeting Maheshika Nanayakkara and her partner Asiri Nawarathna in 2019, a rare opportunity would unearth an even deeper possibility within her role.
Sarah first met Asiri when he took part in UOW's 'International Student Ambassador program’ which offers international students an important voice in creating programs relevant to their needs. Masheshika, who was completing her Master of Business, was working with the UOWx team in the same building. "The UOWx program manager sat next to me, so [Maheshika and I] were always crossing paths,” says Sarah. “Maheshika would come in to drop something off, or we'd run into each other in the corridor or by the watercooler.”
Eventually, the trio collaborated on projects as part of a larger team. And so a friendship developed slowly but surely—from cordial, to professional, and eventually personal.
“When I first met Sarah, both my husband and I were international students. We always felt supported by the community in the hub that we worked with and the programs that were run by other students,” says Maheshika. “So whenever we met with Sarah, we knew we could approach her because we would see her being very supportive of everybody and supportive of different programs at the university.”
“Over a year those interactions brought us closer together,” she adds, as a prelude to how far their friendship would extend.
In 2020, while still finishing her Master of Business, Maheshika and Asiri were due to return to Sri Lanka to host an engagement celebration with family and friends. But when COVID derailed their plans with no end in sight, the pair improvised. While Sarah was their first choice to help them navigate the bureaucracy involved in such a celebration, the pair were unaware of how much she would relate to their cause.
“Our parents pushed the idea [of hosting an engagement first] in Wollongong, seeing as though it wasn’t going to be possible to travel for a few years,” says Maheshika. “We thought of asking Sarah for help first, so I sent an email thinking she might explain the process, not expecting her to go above and beyond to help like she did.”
Sarah wrote back within minutes with a simple message: happy to help.
Left to right: Maheshika, Sarah and Asiri
It’s worth noting here that in Sri Lankan culture, an engagement is often a bigger event involving the exchanging of rings, the signing of marriage certificates and celebrating with family and friends. For Sarah, the request to help make this happen offered a chance to not only offer some light in an otherwise dark time, but to also pass on learnings she had developed from her own experiences navigating a new world. “It was around the first wave of COVID lockdowns, and I was just so aware of the students who were far away from their families,” she recalls, reflecting on a most uncertain time. “So when Maheshika and Asiri reached out, I just thought 'there is so much hope in this’."
“I migrated to Australia from the UK in my gap year, and even though both countries speak English, it’s not the same. When I married an Australian I had no idea what you were supposed to do and not having your Mum or somebody really close to ask ‘what now?’ was hard. So I can’t imagine how hard it would have been to go through all that but also in a second language."
Sarah worked closely with Maheshika and Asiri to help bring their engagement to life, helping create space for important traditions from their Buddhist culture, as well as the red tape they would have to navigate along the way. "Unfortunately for beautiful people like Asiri and Maheshika, bureaucratic departments aren't always easy to navigate,” Sarah says, describing an unforgiving process that would require endless calls (including some to Gordon Bradbury, Wollongong Lord Mayor) to rectify. She also helped arrange for a picture-perfect event, including a hairdresser, florist, venue (the UOW innovation campus) and for Mr. Bradbury to officiate. It was a rare positive news story at a time when they were in short supply, and happily captured the attention of students and faculty.
“Sarah was so supportive of everything we had to go through,” says Maheshika. “We were so stressed out because we were doing our finals. But we didn’t feel that weight on us because it was so smooth, and in many ways more special than the function we might have had otherwise. [It wasn’t until] after we started planning that she told us about her own experiences and why it was so important to her to pay it forward.”
“How can you stop love? I can figure out systems and processes for the sake of love,” Sarah adds.
Maheshika, Asiri and Sarah’s story is a perfect example of how students from all backgrounds can use their time at UOW to engage with as many people as possible. “If we had closed the doors to anything other than sitting in lectures, we wouldn’t have met so many amazing people,” says Maheshika. “That’s something I really love about UOW is all the supportive mentors, and Sarah is one of them.”
Maheshika and Asiri were International Student Ambassadors, a role in which they work with people like Sarah to provide support, connection and friendship to emerging UOW international students, just like they once were. “The co-design process is so special because you have the luxury of meeting people like Maheshika where you get these extra special, magical moments that lead to an ongoing friendship,” Sarah says. “From there, you get to play a role in someone’s life, like on their wedding day. It’s just remarkable.”
Now, these close friends want to share their advice for students of all backgrounds to come together and make the most of their time on campus—starting with removing labels altogether.
“Adding labels to students like ‘international’ and ‘domestic’ drives me mad,” says Sarah. “Labels attract invisible barriers, and we are here to create safe spaces that allow students to flourish into the community regardless of their ‘label’.”
“Global citizenship means you’re making connections with different points of view; those can come from domestic students as much as international students, and culturally and linguistically diverse students. It’s about respect, listening and learning; and the benefits are endless.”
“We all walk into uni as adults,” Maheshika adds. “So we have that ownership to do whatever we want. So it’s on us to decide what we are going to do and take those chances. I never felt like there were less opportunities because I was an international student. It was more about taking the opportunity to go and voice my opinion. It's important to know that you can reach out for help, there are facilities you can reach out to and lead yourself, rather than waiting for people to come to you."
“It’s just about us deciding what to do, and taking ownership of it.”