International student advocate wins prestigious global award

UNE International project officer Dunya Alruhaimi has won an international accolade for her efforts to build cultural awareness and support for newcomers to the Armidale community.

The inaugural PIEoneer awards, announced in London last week, honour professionals working in international education who are pushing professional standards or redefining student experiences.

Dunya was chosen from a large field of nominations as the winner of the International Alumni category for her delivery of innovative programs that offer practical and social support for international students and their families.

“For me, being shortlisted was honour enough,” she said.

“Awards are wonderful but it’s more important to me that we no longer have families feeling isolated and lonely in our community.”

Dunya knows from first-hand experience how hard it can be to leave your homeland and move half-way around the world. She and her husband Hussein Almoadhen and their two young children arrived in Armidale from Iraq in 2013, not knowing a soul.

Hussein was embarking on a Master of Animal Science at UNE and Dunya an ESL course, which eventually led to a Master of Education.

Her personal experiences, coupled with those shared by other international students and their families, convinced her of the need to foster new relationships in the broader Armidale community, and to support the health and wellbeing of newcomers.

“When you are foreign to a country you need someone to help translate at medical appointments, to teach you to drive on the correct side of the road, to help you learn the language and provide some opportunities to socialise,” Dunya said.

“Most of the international students coming to UNE are mature, with families, and the environment in the house is very important to that student’s success.”

At first Dunya was informally supporting new families, largely through a weekly international women’s support group. But one thing led to another and in October last year UNE established the International Hub and Dunya’s valuable volunteer work was recognised with her appointment as a project officer.

She now designs a program for international families that includes driving instruction, language lessons, a children’s playgroup and various sporting opportunities.

Among the most successful initiatives have been the national day gatherings held throughout the year.

“These days are all about making the new families feel welcome but also sharing our rich cultures with the people of Armidale,” Dunya said.

“Friendships between international students and the community now develop quite naturally and Armidale is seeing the benefits of being a multicultural society.

“In this way, our education at UNE is bringing the entire community together and building awareness and understanding.”

In 2015 Dunya was named NSW International Student of the Year for her voluntary work in the community, and she recently commenced her PhD, but there’s always another project just around the corner.

“I’m about to organise a Zumba class for women on campus,” she said.

“I’m always looking at ways to bring people together.”