Tong Sheng (Thomson) Ch’ng‘s life changing education in New South Wales (NSW) started with a miniature wooden replica of the Sydney Harbour.
“Sydney became part of my educational journey thanks to the encouragement of a family friend residing in the city,” he tells Study International.
“This friend gifted me a beautiful wooden souvenir of Sydney Harbour, sparking my dream to study in Sydney. His words, ‘The world is your oyster,’ have constantly inspired me to strive for greater heights in life.”
Today, the third-generation Chinese Malaysian is a Project Officer – Advocacy and Engagement with Study NSW.
The organisation leads the New South Wales government’s support for international students and the international education sector, with hope of drawing international students to Sydney universities and NSW.
“My current role with Study NSW is all about better engagement with both the international education industry and, more importantly, our students digitally. Additionally, I support the team with various projects, events, and initiatives,” he shares.
It’s a role that makes full use of the experiences he has garnered over the years as an international student in Australia.
Early life in Butterworth, Penang
Growing up in Butterworth, Ch’ng described the town as a charming place with a population of just over 100,000.
“Neighbours and locals are treated like family,” he says.
A clear memory he has about his childhood was a small bakery managed by his late mother near the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) base in Butterworth.
Specialising in buns, she supplied the airbase café. Ch’ng often accompanied her, interacting with many Air Force officers. These encounters marked his first impression and connection with Australia.
When asked about his aspirations to study abroad, Ch’ng credits much of his dreams to his mother, who strongly advocated for the best education for her children.
“My mother believed in investing in the future through academic pursuits,” he says.
“She placed great emphasis on our academic and extracurricular achievements, resulting in my recognition as an active student throughout primary and secondary school.”
Ch’ng would hold positions such as Prefect and Head Prefect as well as win prizes in public speaking and singing competitions at both school and state levels.
Meanwhile, his mother worked tirelessly to accumulate the means for her children to study abroad or at international branch campuses in Malaysia.
“Although she couldn’t fulfil this dream for herself, she hoped her children would have the chance to become global citizens through education,” he shares.
Studying in Sydney
When it came time to pick what he wanted to study in university, the Malaysian felt he was more inclined towards business after realising that science was not his forte during high school.
He pursued a Bachelor of Commerce and majored in Finance and Management at Curtin University x Navitas’ Sydney campus.
The three things that Ch’ng enjoyed the most from his undergraduate days were the opportunity to make friends with people from around the world, opportunities to organise meaningful events such as Australia’s Biggest Morning Tea and a second-hand book exchange in his capacity as President of the Student Guild, and experiencing the Australian way of life.
Later in his career, Ch’ng would pursue a Master of Science (Project Management) at the same institution with the help of a scholarship from Navitas.
“Project management was a lively and practical course in which we can apply the skills in almost every aspect of life. Basically, anything that has a start and end date requires processes and procedures, and has an impact is considered a project,” he shares.
Pursuing his passion for advocacy
During his time in Australia, Ch’ng honed his skills to influence decisions and policies when representing students and youth.
Most importantly, he played a crucial role in founding the Council of International Students Australia (CISA), one of the 80 international student delegates representing 52 student organisations. This collaborative initiative involved the National Union of Students, the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations, and the Australian Federation of International Students (AFIS).
“As the recognised peak body for international students in Australia, we advocated for the inclusion of student representatives in government and industry advisory boards, ensuring that international student perspectives were considered,” he shares.
“Consequently, a student representative is now included in both the Australian Government’s Council of International Education (chaired by the Minister) and the NSW State Government international education board, including Study NSW’s International Education Advisory Board.”
Throughout his tenure with CISA, Ch’ng and his team actively contributed to submissions during reviews initiated by federal and state governments, notably participating in the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 (ESOS Act) review and shaping Australia’s international education strategy for 2015 to 2025.
Upon completing his master’s, the project management graduate became part of the ASEAN Youth Organisation (AYO) and co-founded the ASEAN-Australia Education Dialogue (AAED).
As the Vice President for AYO, he represented the ASEAN region at the inaugural United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Youth Conference in 2016 and 2018.
“During this conference, I led and co-drafted the youth declaration on quality education, which was presented to presidents, prime ministers, and senior government delegates of UNCTAD Member States,” he shares.
While gratifying to be part of something important, these roles came with its fair share of challenges.
Ch’ng’s roles at CISA and AYO were voluntary. It demanded sacrifice, dedication, and passion.
“This commitment is certainly not for the faint-hearted, with constraints such as time and money often posing challenges,” he says.
“To overcome these hurdles, we actively sought collaborative partnerships and leveraged key alliances to achieve our goals.”
He also had to learn how to work with individuals from different parts of the world, which fostered a strong sense of cross-cultural knowledge and skills — one mishap can lead to a conflict within the team, resulting in low morale.
Working with Study NSW: Drawing international students to Sydney universities and NSW
Through his role at CISA, Ch’ng participated in the NSW International Education and Research Taskforce consultation, which aimed to design a 10-year strategy for the state’s international education sector.
“The report’s first recommendation was to establish Study NSW as a dedicated unit to coordinate strategies, policies and programs,” he shares.
“My 10 years of student and youth advocacy work have also enabled me to realise the importance of the role of government and public service. What motivated me to join the public service and Study NSW is the fact that the work we do matters for the people we serve, for this case, our international education sector and our international students, rather than the few.”
Here, the team works to enhance the experience of international students in NSW and promote the state’s strengths as a study destination.
They work on policy and international market development as well as run development programmes and events for students, government and industry collaborators in the international education sector.
As a Project Officer, Ch’ng’s daily routine involves virtual or in-person meetings with colleagues and external stakeholders, checking and replying to emails, and attending to various tasks.
“Since my role involves digital engagement, I spend a significant amount of time in the world of digital communication platforms, which is a vibrant space,” he enthuses.
“Additionally, we recognise the significance of in-person engagement, which is why I support the team in delivering various programmes and events — a favourite part of my work life.”
For instance, he was part of the Study NSW Website Redesign and Migration project. Ch’ng organised industry and student focus groups, seeking input to craft new information and design for the best user journey.
‘Resilience is the most significant attribute I’ve gained as a result of my international student journey’
Moving to a new country and away from the shelter of parents and family can be daunting for an international student.
One thing that helped Ch’ng navigate personal and professional hardships was the awareness to develop a resilient mindset.
“It has significantly helped me navigate challenges in performing my duties in various roles I have held,” he says.
As for those who are considering studying abroad, the Project Officer at Study NSW has three pieces of advice:
- Research: Are you getting sufficient and accurate information from a trusted and credible source?
- Readiness to unlearn and learn: Expect failures and lessons to be learned from mistakes. Always be prepared to be pushed out of your comfort zone.
- Be clear with objectives and directions: As the saying goes, ‘When the why is clear, the how becomes clearer.’ To maximise the international student experience, it’s important to constantly explore personal goals and set a direction ahead.