Meet Gary Lee – 2016 New Australian of the Year!

If you’ve been to The Couch at 614, a safe and free lounge space in Melbourne for International Students to socialise, relax, study, and seek assistance, or attended the Lord Mayor’s Student Welcome, you’ve likely met Gary Lee, one of the most well-known international student alumni in Melbourne. Gary Lee is the 2016 New Australian of the Year, an award that recognises the contributions of migrants and refugees in Australia.

Gary has been described as the glue between communities, and bringing together communities that don’t traditionally meet — such as refugees and international students. A graduate of RMIT University, we sat down with Gary to chat about his achievement and his advice for international students.

Congratulations on winning New Australian of the Year for 2016, how did you feel when it was announced?

It was a fairly surreal moment and honestly, it hasn’t really sunk in.  I went from being ecstatic to being slightly anxious before exhilaration took over. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that as a kid growing up in Malaysia that one day I would be living in and working for the world’s most liveable city, Melbourne; and be presented with such an astounding recognition. This is indeed a great testament of what international students and migrants can achieve and contribute when given the access, opportunity and support.  So if there’s anything that I do that’s extraordinary it’s giving people access to these opportunities, a chance to engage with community and develop an appreciation of giving back.  That’s all that I do. I don’t save lives.

What was the best moment for you in winning the 2016 New Australian of the Year?

This awe-inspiring journey has no doubt just begun. The highlight so far has to be the special invitation to be one of the guest speakers at the heart of the nation’s capital, Parliament in Canberra alongside the Honorable Bill Shorten (Leader of the Opposition), Senator Richard Di Natale (Leader of the Greens) Mr Philip Ruddock and Dr Andrew Leigh (Chair & Deputy Chair of the Australia China Friendship Network). It was a great opportunity to address some of the issues that I am passionate about IN Parliament!

 What attracted you to living in Melbourne?

There is never a dull moment in Melbourne.  The city is a global cultural hub, and its vibrancy spans across major events and festivals, art, comedy, music, architecture, literature, film and television.  But more importantly, it is about the diversity of communities, cultures, and friendships.  It is a place I have called home for over 15 years. It is also a place that I feel I can make a difference.

Initially you came to Melbourne as an international student, how did you become involved in the local community?

I have always been active in school and it didn’t take me long for me to engage once I arrived in Melbourne. I remember coming across a magazine and there was a callout for students to run for positions on the RMIT Association of International Students (RAIS) Committee.  In less than a week of being in Australia, I walked up to the office and handed over my nomination form.  I went on to become the Publicity Officer, then President the following year and the rest as they say, is history.  This no doubt catapulted my interest in connecting communities.

 What do you enjoy most about living here?

This city is a labyrinth of constantly evolving mystery and beauty. I find inspiration daily from Melbourne’s kaleidoscope of ever changing city landscapes, edgy street art, quirky cafes and bars, talented street performers, the enigmatic laneways and arcades full of the promise of discovery; it is entertaining, rich, diverse and dynamic. I even like the unpredictable weather.  But above all that, I love living in Australia because of its cultural diversity and its strong tradition of giving back and making a difference in the social justice space.

 What message do you hope to promote as New Australian of the Year?

I have a long-standing and personal connection with diversity. My passion lies in the well-being and interests of culturally and linguistically diverse communities, including international students.

I want society to appreciate cultural diversity beyond just festivals and food.  For all of the multicultural success in Australia, there is often under representation of diversity in management and leadership. In order for Australia to progress, we must recognise that the most profound diversity we possess is the diversity of thought, and with that, we need to bring people together who have a range of experiences, working styles and knowledge. International students and migrants have different ideas, strengths, interests, and customs which are critical to providing this competitive advantage.

I also want people to start using ‘multicultural’ as a verb, not a noun. It should not be a label of people, but used as a definition of how we do things. Having a multicultural approach to everything we do will give us an edge in all that we do.

What advice would you offer to international students studying, or planning to study, in Melbourne?

The opportunity to study in Australia is like a blank canvas, you get out of it what you put into it.  It’s a land of opportunities but it’s up to the individual to make the most of it. It’s an exciting phase in life to experiment, discover and try new things. Also, whatever you chose to do, my mantra is that you make yourself noteworthy. Make an impact, leave a mark. Create your own rules and stand apart, dare to be different and follow your heart; that way you know you have lived.

Finally, what is one thing you think every international student should do while they’re here?

Personally, I don’t think there is a single rule that defines the ideal international student experience. My advice?  Pen your own story, step outside your comfort zone and enjoy this beautiful country. Make the most of it. Experience, live and do things that are outside your comfort zone, explore, learn, dream and discover, because this experience will not last forever.

Follow the City of Melbourne: International Students Facebook page to see all that Gary and his team get up to. 

Photo by Andrew Coulter.