New Australian of the Year 2016, Gary Lee, shares his story with Ambassador Darren Lee as part of our ‘inspiring leaders’ interview series.

Awarded ‘New Australian of the Year in 2016', Gary Lee is a passionate advocate for the welfare of international students. He has spent many years in Melbourne being a volunteer and won the Premier's Volunteer Champions (Leadership) Award in 2019.

Here, Gary Lee shares with Study Melbourne Ambassador Darren Lee his journey from international student from Malaysia to his current role as the International Education Project Coordinator at the City of Melbourne.

Darren Lee: You are well known for your volunteer work. Can you share how you got started?

Gary Lee: I came to Melbourne to pursue a Bachelor of Business (Marketing) at RMIT University. Back in high school, I was heavily involved in community projects so as early as my first few days as an international student in Melbourne, I was keen to be connected immediately. I was fortunate to have been elected as the Publicity Officer of the RMIT Association of International Students that year, then President the following year.

I also volunteered at the Starlight Express Room at the Royal Children’s Hospital every Sunday. Then, I spent time with critically ill children and their families. The fulfilment I got from that phase of my life motivates me in whatever I do today.

Keen to find a platform to express my artistic side, I started PoisE’n and PoisE’n Bollypop, a hip-hop and fusion Bollywood dance crew. This is a creative platform for me and other international students to express ourselves.

Currently, I am an Ambassador for Welcoming Australia, Bully Zero Australia, Melbourne Victory, AFL, and a strong supporter of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

Darren: You never stop advocating for the welfare of international students here in Melbourne. What inspires you most in what you do, especially with your current contribution to supporting international students during this coronavirus pandemic?

Gary: Most people desire to be participants in reality shows like The Voice, X Factor and Masterchef but I want to be the mentor on these shows instead. My desire to succeed is truly as great as my desire to help others reach their goals and that drives me every single day. Knowing your purpose in life helps you live life with integrity besides keeping you motivated and focused.  It took me many years to learn more about myself and understand my purpose: who I am, what I am and what my legacy will be.

You know you have found your purpose when your passion, skills, energy and dedication all come together in a way that excites you. It motivates you to wake up every morning – like a child on Christmas morning.

I am truly in awe of what international students continuously do and can achieve and I want to play a role in helping them succeed. When COVID-19 hit, it caused mayhem to the lives of many international students and immediately I knew I could play a role in supporting them through the pandemic both professionally and personally.

Over the years, we have had the opportunity to work with many partner organisations to run award-winning, high-impact projects and programs such as The Couch – International Student Centre, the EDGE International Student Leaders’ Program, the Essendon Football Club GLoBALL Program and the Melbourne International Student Conference.

Darren: Many international students seek employment here in Australia after graduating. What is your advice for students who wish to kickstart their career or even gain some experience here in Australia?

Gary: I’ll say it over and over again –­ volunteering is the stepping stone to achieving the career of your dreams. Volunteering is humbling, it builds character and it’s all about doing things for people that can’t do anything for you. For me, there is probably no greater reward than doing what you love while serving a purpose greater than yourself.

You get to learn new skills and improve your self-esteem and confidence. Plus it’s a great way to integrate with the local culture. Every time you volunteer, you open yourself to expanding your networks and you never know who will ultimately provide you with the opportunities to excel.

Remember, nobody stays at ‘international student’ forever. You will go on to do extraordinary things in your lives and volunteering opens up doors for you.

Darren: If you could turn back time to when you first arrived in Australia, is there something you wish you would have done differently?

Gary: I don’t believe in turning back time or doing things differently. I feel I have lived my international student life to its fullest. It could definitely have “been better” (whatever that implies), but it has gotten me to where I am today so I am grateful. Being an international student is a great phase in most people’s lives, so I encourage every student to step out of their comfort zones, experiment, meet new people and challenge themselves. Every time you feel uncomfortable, you are learning.