Boarders are not budging during crisis

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Wendy Lawson, the school’s head of girls boarding at Peninsula Grammar and principal Stuart Johnston with three of the school’s overseas students who decided to stay, Chip Nguyen, Kai Ikida and Sarah Lin. Picture: Gary Sissons

STAGE four restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19 have been hard for everyone. Disruption to regular routines and weeks on end without face-to-face contact with friends and family.

But spare a thought for the members of one segment of the community who faced an agonising decision because of the coronavirus pandemic – overseas students.

Those boarding at Peninsula Grammar, Mount Eliza had to decide whether to return home or remain in Australia for an unknown length of time.

“As the coronavirus pandemic gathered steam earlier in the year, it became apparent that students would have to make a difficult decision,” Wendy Lawson, the school’s head of girls boarding said.

“They could board one of the last flights out to their home countries or stay. But staying meant that they were here for the duration of the crisis and for as long as it took for normal international travel to resume.

“The initial decisions made by the students were huge. We then sought to support them as much as possible with the decisions they had made.”

It was a difficult time at the boarding school, with open conversations about the best way forward. Would the students, still children, decide to go back to their families, friends, and all they know? Or would they decide to put their education first and stay?

Many decided to leave, but 55 stayed. 

Chip, a year 12 student from Hanoi in Vietnam, booked a flight home, but then cancelled it.

“My parents wanted me to go home,” Chip said. “I didn’t want to risk my studies though and persuaded them that I was safe here.”

Sarah, year 11, from Fujian Province in China, has been living at the school’s boarding house for 18 months and her parents wanted her to stay.

“They knew it was safe for me here. They trusted the school would keep me safe, so I decided to stay.”

Kai, year 12, from Japan, had to persuade his mother that it was best for him to stay.

“My mother wanted me to return to Japan, but my father agreed I should stay,” he said. “As a year 12 student, I knew returning would be very disruptive to my studies, and I really wanted to finish the year.”

Returning to Japan would add the extra complication of him trying to return to Melbourne for the start of university next year.

Adding to the students’ isolation are the restrictions that have mostly kept them confined to the school grounds.

Principal Stuart Johnston acknowledges the sacrifice made by the students and the spirit they show.

“We cannot underestimate how difficult a decision this was for each student,” Mr Johnston said. “And our school has been fortunate enough to have been entrusted the care of these young students in this time of international crisis.

“But, more important than that, is the spirit these students show. Their strength and resilience have been incredible to watch. 

“They have not returned to the loving arms of their parents in over eight long months. They have not smelled the familiar scent of the cherry blossoms in Tokyo or walked the busy streets of bustling Shanghai. They have not laughed with friends in the cafes of Hanoi. 

“Yet in their humility, in their unyielding grace, there exists a profound determination to persist, and an unbreakable unity born of circumstance.”

First published in the Frankston Times – 7 September 2020

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