Study Melbourne Ambassador Güler Arslantaş spoke with scientist and entrepreneur Hilkat Özgün as part of our ‘inspiring leaders’ interview series.

Hilkat Özgün is a scientist, speaker, entrepreneur and mentor. She was born in Turkey but moved to Australia in the 1980s. She worked at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) for 25 years on energy storage innovations. She is currently a science advisor and chair of the Australian Turkish Cultural Platform. She loves inspiring young people to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Güler Arslantaş: How did your journey to Australia, and specifically Melbourne, begin?

Hilkat Özgün: My husband Sinan and I initially arrived in Australia in 1988 for the opportunities of higher studies. In researching the different Australian states, we decided Melbourne would provide exciting new opportunities and pave the way for a better quality of life, brighter future and a more enjoyable lifestyle.

Sinan and I both found work that was well suited to our career experience and qualifications. I worked as a scientist at CSIRO and Sinan was a food scientist at a laboratory.

I consider Melbourne to be the multicultural capital of Australia with its peaceful environment, kind-hearted people and its diversity. I’ve been to many countries and cities all around the world, but none of them could compete with the life I’m living in Melbourne.

My advice for newcomers is to be brave – get out and mix with people from diverse backgrounds, listen more, see more, make more friends and participate in as many activities as you can.

When you first arrived in Australia, did adapting to a new culture take longer than you expected? How did you manage to grow your network?

Originally from Turkey and having worked in Germany, what surprised me most about the Australian working culture was that the people are very genuine and straightforward. It is positive to see that everyone's voice is heard and there are few social formalities within the Australian working culture.

As a migrant, I had always realised the importance of networking. Like many places around the world, it is not what you know but who you know that matters.

It is vital for everyone to establish social networks (friends and family), work networks (within the workplace, the industry and the profession) and personal networks (your own sport, hobby, interest, faith or recreation).

Networks provide us with referrals, mentors, opportunities, support, someone to ask questions, fun and entertainment. But it can take time to create strong networks. It is best to connect with people who have similar interests, values and passions in life who live close by, but it is also good to meet people who are different and can expand your awareness.

I found many ways to create new social networks in Australia including sporting groups, hobbies, interests, causes, faith groups, ethnic communities, and industry and online forums. I connected with people face-to-face, online, via referral from someone else, at events, at open days, at festivals, seminars, training or educational facilities – the list is endless.

Use methods that suit your own personal style and wherever possible, collect people of different ages and backgrounds and decide as time passes which ones you will keep in contact with long-term.

Besides your success as a scientist, you are also an influential community leader as the chair of the Australian Turkish Cultural Platform. What motivates you to engage in cultural and community work?

First and foremost, I love being involved in community work, at any level. I am also involved in volunteering and feel a sense of happiness when I help others, especially multicultural women. I find any work that you do from your heart is the most rewarding. Seeing the joy on the faces of those you have helped makes your efforts all that more worthwhile. I am happy that more people from diverse backgrounds are getting involved in the Australian Turkish Cultural Platform, particularly women.

My vision is to help other professional immigrant women achieve their professional careers, integrate into Australian society and become leaders in their workplaces and communities.

I am actively engaged with newly arrived migrants and help them settle through language support and career guidance.

What would you recommend to international students who want to give back to the community but do not know where to start?

Join volunteer organisations. There are many organisations that regularly look for volunteers in Victoria and Melbourne and this is a great way to network. Volunteering individually or in a group will enhance your career in many ways!

What would your advice be for international students who have recently arrived in Melbourne?

Being an international student is an incredible experience.

First of all, moving to another country to study is a huge step. The culture may be different from their home country however Melbourne is very open to visiting international students.

The important thing in university life is learning how to live and learn joyfully. Separating times between studying and relaxing are essential. Being enthusiastic and active are driving forces that push you to take action and pursue study goals.

Be active and talk with people. Establish a strong network and join student associations so that you can develop your soft skills.

Make friends! This may seem difficult, but really, a university is the perfect venue for meeting people with whom you share common interests. Just like you are interested in Australian culture, customs, and language, many local students will be interested in where you come from and what your life was like in your home country.

If you take time to communicate with your new friends exactly what your language limitations are, many of them will work to accommodate your needs. The more you speak English with your new friends, the easier it will become to understand their speech and to generate more of your own.

While it may be difficult for some international students to understand, in Australia, it is completely acceptable to ask for help when you are having problems. Most universities offer counselling services for their students. In this difficult time, I would recommend that international students keep in touch with their schools and connect and engage with the community.