Ziggy Hao interviewed Viriliana Hernandez, the winner of the 2021 Melbourne Writers Festival storytelling competition for the Vocational Education and Training category.

Words and images by Ziggy Hao, Study Melbourne Student Ambassador

I met Viriliana on a sunny afternoon in front of the State Library of Victoria. Instead of an interview, it felt like an inspiring chat. She is also an international student from Colombia and is doing an Advanced Diploma in Leadership and Management at Kingston Academy of Australia. She is the winner of the 2021 Melbourne Writers Festival storytelling competition for the Vocational Education and Training category with her piece, ‘One Day I woke up in Australia’. Our chat reminded me of my own journey in Melbourne and I can tell she is a brave woman with a leadership mindset.

Viriliana told me about three courageous decisions she made, and I was lucky enough to share the experiences though her journey.

Her first one is to decide to come to Melbourne. Viriliana always dreams of speaking English fluently and experiencing living in a different city. One day, one of her friends who came to Melbourne asked her if that was something that she was keen on, why not act on it? Following her passion, she pressed the pause button on her familiar life and took a 25-hour flight to this new city with “baby English” and a luggage of curiosity. “Everything is so real; the moment I walked out of Melbourne airport, I knew it would be a different experience from English books and any other courses,” she said.

Her second decision was to secure a job at a café.

Melbourne is the coffee capital of Australia, and Virliana has immersed herself in the city’s excellent coffee culture. With a clear goal of improving her English, she got a job to help customers with their coffee. Melbourne has many types of coffee and each customer’s preference is different. She couldn’t figure out which coffee a customer ordered exactly at first. One day, when she did not quite get what a woman ordered (after three attempts), she expected she would be mad; instead, the woman gently asked which language she speaks and said with a smile, “Could you teach me how to ask for this in Spanish so next time I can order in Spanish.” As time passed, she could handle the job and understand her customers a lot better and found that Melburnians are very understanding and willing to learn from other cultures and even other languages.

Her third one is to write in English to prove that she is bilingual and, more importantly, to encourage more international students.

“Writing in English is hard,” she said. “I can finish 2000 words easily in my first language when I am in the moment, while 200 words of IELTS writing nearly killed me.” As a non-native speaker of English, I had very similar experiences. Viriliana recommends students interested in writing in English to start step by step.

Write down phrases, then sentences, and then combine them into an article. Never let your brain get stuck in these ‘what-if’ questions: what if I keep struggling in writing in a second language; what if my article does not have an audience; what if others feel my words are too simple and do not make sense to them.

Viriliana handles these concerns in a fun way; “I talk to my brain: if you just make me afraid, then I won’t listen to you. I will start to listen to you again when you provide me with positive energy.” Her actions have paid off, audience are touched by her story. They can feel her easily through what she said, she just started and has not used fancy words in writing.

The story Viriliana submitted to the Melbourne Writers Festival and Study Melbourne storytelling competition is her maiden work. Being a winner is an encouragement and a fantastic acknowledgement of her bravery. She has exciting plans to start a blog in English. If that is something that interests you too, then I encourage you to start now. I hope you can find courage from Viriliana’s story and be ready to start your journey in Melbourne.