Arun Thomas’s journey from Kerala to Australia was driven by his fascination for a country that shared cricketing ties with India. Since childhood he kept alive the dream to study not just anywhere abroad but in Australia. However, he was an average student and he had to work really hard to get the marks required to qualify for admissions to universities here. But such was his determination that he surprised his father and, most importantly himself, when he scored above 96 per cent in Year 12. As promised, his parents decided to fund his education in the University of South Australia in Adelaide.
However, life did not pan out as Thomas envisioned. He was completely thrown out of his comfort zone coming here and he had to do everything on his own. What made matters worse was the fact that he did not have the language or communication skills, he was under confident and he did not like the three-year degree of Commerce and Accounting that he was pursuing at the time. By the second year, Thomas completely lost the passion for the subject. He realised it wasn’t cut out for him and he decided to drop out of the degree.
The most difficult thing was calling up his parents back in India to inform them about his decision. Of course, they were very disappointed, their hard-earned money going down the drain. “I knew it was not morally right to do this to them but all I needed was help,” says Thomas. His parents insisted that he finished his degree come what may but when Thomas told them he wanted to change his course they flatly told him he was on his own and refused to help. In 2010, Thomas briefly went to India to attend his sister’s wedding and when he got back to Australia he was totally on the brink with no help from his parents who had decided to sever all ties.
It was the lowest point in Thomas’s life. He found himself penniless, homeless and jobless. All he had was his car and for three months literally lived in it. Depression took over him but with the support of mentors and friends he found a job three months later and took up Nursing. When he completed his degree in nursing, he reached out to his parents for the first time in five years.
Alongside studying, Thomas was involved in many student well-being activities and championed in his role as student leader for which he did many pioneering work. He ran for and won the position of President of the Student Association, and was also one of the youngest board members on a learning and curriculum council. Due to his services, Thomas remains an honourary life member of the student association. Later, he has also set up a scholarship for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, the Arun Thomas ATSI Leadership Scholarship at UniSA.
Today Thomas is a registered nurse at Lakes Hostel – Edenhope & District Memorial Hospital. But what is more, he has won many accolades along the way. This May, he was crowned the Young Achiever Award of Victoria. It’s the culmination of a meteoric rise for the former University of South Australia student.
“I was grateful to have so much adversity in my young life. It has made me want to also help people, to help them find their potential. Experiences like that, you can’t buy it. You just have to live through it,” reflects Thomas, who has made himself and his parents proud.
In exclusive, Thomas talks about his life and his plans moving forward.
Share us some of your early experiences as an international student in Adelaide.
Coming to a foreign country which got different culture and language has always been challenging. But my willingness to learn and understand along with seeking help and asking questions enabled me to enhance Australian culture and its language. As an international student I utilised every opportunity for my own personal growth and the benefit of community. Friends within university made my journey as a student smooth and easy.
What’s the hardest thing you’ve had to overcome?
During the year 2011, while studying as an international student I became homeless and end up living three months in my car. It was one of the most challenging times of my life. During that period I struggled emotionally and mentally. But I never lost hope and embraced the difficulty and adversity and learned some valuable lessons through the experience.
Despite the hardships, how did you emerge as a student leader in University of South Australia?
I always had a passion for leadership and making an impact for the community by influencing others. This led me to run for the University of South Australia Student Association election. In 2013, I became the first international student to be elected as the President for the student association. I have shown leadership throughout my role as President of University of South Australia Student Association (USASA), representing more than 35,000 students at the university and guided the association through complete organisational restructuring, rebranding and enhanced governance arrangements. Through rebranding, bringing significant structural change to reflect its core objectives and respond to the changed needs of UniSA students, we were able to get financial surplus for the first time in UniSA student association since the introduction of voluntary student unionism.
At the age of 23, I was appointed as the youngest Council member/ non-executive director, which is the highest governing and decision- making body of the university and successfully negotiated $2.8 million in funding for two years on behalf of Student association for the effective service delivery for UniSA students in areas such as student advocacy, representation and employment.
During 2012-2013, I served as a board member on University of South Australia Academic Board, University of South Australia Students Appeal Committee Member and got appointed to UniSA Governance and Legislation Committee.
My passion for social and humanitarian values led me to sit on different boards in Adelaide. In 2015, I was appointed to South Australia Red Cross Advisory Board and provided governance leadership through identifying and improving the lives of vulnerable people. In 2015, I also sat on board of directors for Carrington Cottages Management Inc. providing policy leadership to tackle homelessness issue in City of Adelaide by providing accommodation for men experiencing homelessness.
What is your current work profile?
I am working as a registered nurse at Edenhope & District Memorial Hospital. Since 2017, I have been providing strategic leadership and clinical governance expertise at Stawell Regional Health in the capacity of a Board Director. Through my role, I ensure the organisation has integrated systems of governance to actively manage patient safety and quality risks, oversee care provided by the clinical workforce is guided by current best practice, that patient safety and quality incidents are recognised, reported and analysed to enhance improved safety systems. I further provide clinical and corporate governance, risk management, finance and leadership expertise through my active involvement as a member in various board sub-committees such as Medical Staff Appointment and Clinical Privileging Committee, Quality and Safety Committee, Finance subcommittee and Board executive and Remuneration Committee.
After winning the Young Victorian Leader of the year award, any special causes you are focussing on now?
Personally, to be an ambassador for the Victorian Young Achiever Award 2019/20 is an absolute and huge honour. I am looking forward to spread the message of resilience, dedication, hard work on various forums throughout the state in the coming year. I will continue to champion for vulnerable people in health care system for quality care and safety through educating, empowering and inspiring people around me.
I am also actively looking for voluntary speaking opportunities to share my story on various forums to spread the message of resilience, dedication and commitment. A story and journey of an international student which I hope will inspire and give hope to young people that all dreams are possible in this beautiful country which I call home when we put our minds and heart to it.
What advice do you have for new Indians coming to this country?
This is a country where everything is possible if you put your mind and heart to it. Embrace opportunities, never shy away from taking responsibilities. Be curious and ask lot of questions. It’s OK to ask for help. Talk less and listen more. Be proud of the adversities in your life because that’s what makes you stronger. Embrace the culture and language and always think about how you as an individual can contribute to the society in a positive way.
Number of awards received so far?
2012: 75th Anniversary Resthaven Undergraduate Nursing scholarship (First International student to receive this award)
2013: Study Adelaide South Australian Governor’s Community Engagement Award
2014: University of South Australia Student Association – Honorary Life Member
2015: University of South Australia – Adjunct Clinical Associate (Awarded Honorary Title)
2016: Channel 9 South Australian Young Achiever People Choice Award
2017: Horsham Florist’s Unsung Hero Award
2018: Victorian Statewide Celebrating Aged Care Leadership Award
2018: Victorian Healthcare Association Excellence in Leadership Finalist
2019: Royal Flying Doctor Service Victoria Regional & Rural Health Achiever Award
2019: First National Real Estate Leadership Award Finalist
2019: Nova 100 Victorian People Choice Award Winner
2019: 7 News Victorian Young Achiever of the year
(As told to The Indian Weekly)