Gary Lee is a facilitator of people, ideas and opportunities. He’s a motivator, a mentor and a mensch. On the surface that honourable Yiddish description might seem a little out of place for a relocated Malaysian living in Australia, but given Gary’s passion for embracing diversity and multiculturalism it couldn’t be more apt.

In 2016 when he was named New Australian of the Year for his service to the community and while his adopted home has affected him profoundly he would never have got here if it wasn’t for his parents.

“To be honest I had no interest in coming to Australia. I loved my life in Malaysia and had no intention of leaving, but my parents had decided long before my siblings and I were born that we would all study overseas. I had no real expectations about Australia because it just wasn’t on my radar, but both my brother and sister had made the trek before me so it seemed like the most logical place to go.”

Gary originally intended to return to Malaysia as soon as he finished his degree, but his plans changed not long after arriving. “I just got involved in everything and I became so active that I was having the time of my life. I fell in love with Australia so much that it took 6 years after graduation before I finally went back to Malaysia for a holiday.”

While he was studying Gary became involved with Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital where he visited critically ill kids every week over 2 years. “It can be a traumatic experience because some of those kids don’t survive. Sometimes you would meet a child, spend time with them and then the next week go back and find that they’re gone because they didn’t survive.

On one occasion there was this huge tattooed man who the other volunteers avoided because he looked scary, but he came up to me with his little baby and said: ‘hey mate, are you a volunteer?’ Inside I was freaking out, but then he said: ‘good on you mate, thanks for spending time with my kid.’

Later I discovered his child passed away from cancer. The fact that he appreciated what I did really touched me. It was situations like this that made me realise Australia was the right place for me.”

Even though marketing was his degree it was advocacy where Gary made his mark.“When I got to Australia I felt I could make a real contribution from my experience as an international student. In my mind I knew this was my calling.

The funny thing is, for the first 2 years I think people had more faith in me than I did in myself! One of the things I really love about Australians is that they do focus a lot on helping others and I wanted to give something back.”

And what did the New Australian of the Year accolade mean to him? “I was very excited. It was important to me because it’s a testament to all new Australians – whether you’re a refugee, a migrant or an international student to know you can contribute and make a difference, given the right opportunities and support. In a way it’s really just the start of the journey for me because I know I can do more for the community.”

Over the past 15 years Gary has mentored international students to help them achieve their goals. “The key is empowerment. I don’t just want to help them, I want them to feel empowered to do what they need to do. I know that I can make a difference in their lives and that’s a privilege.”

Does Gary think that international students are often stereotyped? “It’s easy to label them and expect everyone to behave in a certain way, but they come from a multitude of backgrounds and they are all so different.

It’s only when we listen to their stories and we get to know where they come from that we find out who they really are. That’s how we break those stereotypes down.”

During the Commonwealth Games Gary Lee will call the Gold Coast home as he becomes the Student Emissary in Residence of the Hub.“I’m really excited to engage with students here. It’s such a great learning opportunity. What I like to do is push boundaries to take people out of their traditional comfort zones.

For students the Hub is very important in building social networks and to engage with the local community outside of their campus. It’s not just what happens inside the Hub, it’s the lifelong friendships that they make outside of it.

For residents it’s a really good time to get a better understanding of the benefits of having international students. The diversity that they bring to the city is really wonderful.”

After so many years of advocating for international students Gary’s insights into what students really want to take away from their experience in another country is a lesson for students and locals alike. 

“All international students are looking for adventure and an experience, but the one thing that really makes them want to stay is a sense of belonging.They need to feel welcomed, knowing they’ll have the opportunity to do things they otherwise wouldn’t have in their home country.

It’s a place where they can start new things, new relationships and new ideas. Australia gives international students that space. What we need to remember is that they come here as young adults, often leaving home for the very first time and in many cases coming from strict or conservative family backgrounds.

Suddenly they’re in a country where they can make decisions for themselves and they’re really unprepared for that. But if we can help them define who they are and what they want to be then I think we’ve done our job.”

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