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Students in Focus

The story behind a smile

Carlos Chaves has faced numerous challenges throughout his time studying, but he has come through with a smile.

Over six years ago, Carlos and his partner made the difficult decision for him to move from their home in Colombia, to Australia to pursue further education. His wife and their two children, aged six years and 18 months, would follow as soon as possible.

After losing his teaching role following a wave of redundancies, he was determined to find new opportunities, to ensure that he could provide the very best life for his young family.

He spent over a year living alone in Perth, studying English, before relocating to Canberra to pursue a Master of Teaching English to Speakers of Others Languages (TESOL) at the University of Canberra.

Carlos was feeling isolated — working long hours and missing his family, and with no time to meet new people, make friends and build support networks.

“For us international students, you have to work jobs like being a cleaner, where you have to work all week, so you don't make friends or build social relationships,” Carlos says.

“I’m also 40 years old, most of my classmates or workmates were in their 20s. That made it a little bit more difficult because basically I was by myself.”

Although his family were glad to be reunited in late 2018 — this wasn’t the end of their troubles. Carlos was working long hours to provide for his family, and keeping up with his study, which meant that he spent less time with his family.

“It was difficult, especially for the kids. At one point they were like, ‘who are you?’” Carlos says.

“But what can I do? I need to work, I need to study, but they were so young, they didn't understand that.”

At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Carlos was struggling with stress, anxiety, and depression. He reached out to his lecturers, who provided support, guidance and flexibility as he worked through his studies.

“I was just trying to keep my head above water. They were really supportive, and they helped me a lot when I needed extra time to submit my assignments,” Carlos says.

When the time came for Work Integrated Learning (WIL) in his final year, Carlos’s lecturer recommended a job opportunity advertised at UC College – the rest is history. He excelled in the role and was even offered an ongoing position after his placement concluded.

It’s been a long road, but Carlos’s hard work has paid off. He graduated in Semester One of 2022. With his degree, he’s managed to secure employment and now also teaches Spanish at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

With more time on his hands, Carlos has rebuilt his relationship with his children and has the resources to give them the life they deserve.

“Now, I can afford to take them to different places. So usually when it's a nice weekend we play golf, next weekend we’re going to Sea Life Aquarium in Sydney,” Carlos says.

From his years teaching in Colombia, first as a primary school teacher, before taking on high school classes, Carlos understands that the best education is delivered with a smile and a hint of fun.

“In Colombia, I remember how the students enjoyed my lessons. My goal is to have fun while you're learning because if you're too stressed you can’t learn – but if you have fun in learning, it will be easier,” Carlos says.

Now teaching Foundation English at UC College, he prepares international students for the formal English they’ll need for university tasks, such as essays and presentations.

“I accomplished my goals – to finish my masters and about that I’m very happy. It's sad that everything didn't go as planned, but that's part of life – you move on and continue,” Carlos says.

“I really love my work. I've been teaching for more than 20 years now. I can't imagine myself doing anything else.”

Words and photo by Kelly White.