These ‘study mums’ gave up everything to give their children an Australian education

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jul5,2024
Key Points
  • More than 50 per cent of Student Guardian visa holders are from China with many of these women known as ‘study mothers’.
  • While some guardians relish the chance to start a new life in Australia, most face pressures including language barriers and financial strain.
  • The visa does not allow holders to work or engage in long-term study and expires when children turn 18.
Michelle Chen, Angel Dong, and Xiaonan Li are known as ‘study mums’ within the Chinese community for accompanying their young children to Australia for education.
They say all “study mothers deserve applause” for the financial hardship, language barriers, personal relationship issues, and moments of profound loneliness they endure in a new country.
Their visa conditions don’t allow them to engage in long-term study or work, forcing some homesick mothers to return.
Data from the Australian Department of Home Affairs showed that as of June 2024, nearly 3,000 Chinese mothers are in the country accompanying their children
Chen and Dong, who decided to stay on, told SBS Chinese that Australian education was “worth it” because of the fierce competition for quality education at schools in China and the prospects for their children gaining permanent residency in Australia.

“Australia is an attractive alternative for many of us because its temperate climate and the large Chinese diaspora,” Dong, who arrived in Australia in early 2024, said.

Student Guardian visa

To study in Australia, international students aged under 18 are required to have accommodation arrangements or be accompanied by a guardian.
Their guardians often hold a subclass 590 Student Guardian visa which prohibits them from working, long-term study and leaving their children except in exceptional circumstances.

As of June 2024, there were 6,084 Student Guardian visa holders and of these, more than half — or 3,419 — were citizens of China, according to the Department of Home Affairs.

Michelle Chen with her son Ethan Peng

Michelle Chen with her son, Ethan Peng, in Tasmania this January. Credit: Supplied.

Chen has been in Australia with her son, Ethan Peng, for the past seven years since they arrived in Sydney in 2017.

“Only a mother can give so much to her child. Most accompanying experiences inevitably result in the separation of a couple, causing negative impacts on the family,” Chen said.
Chen believes that accompanying children to study abroad not only ensures a better education for the child but also provides mothers with an opportunity to forge a new path in life.
“With the child’s father, our relationship and the family atmosphere were getting worse, putting a lot of pressure on me,” she said.
“If I had stayed in China, it would have become increasingly unbearable for my mental health. I even needed to see a psychiatrist at that time.”

Chen, who relies on the rental income from her property in China, said coming to Australia was her way of starting afresh.

Angel Dong with her daughter Leyi Yao

Angel Dong (right) and her daughter, Leyi Yao, live in Sydney. Credit: Supplied.

Dong, 47, quit her high-paying job at a foreign-capital enterprise in Shanghai earlier this year and decided to travel to Australia with her daughter for better educational opportunities.
“It wasn’t part of my plan,” Dong said.
“At our age, it’s easy to get burned out at work, and I’d been working in my company for over 20 years.
“I just wanted to find a way to try a different life. It’s important to believe that women at our age are very powerful and experienced, we need to experience this with a sojourn vibe.”

Dong said their living expenses in Australia are supported by her husband, who has remained in China.

Downsides to guardian life

Despite Chen and Dong’s enthusiasm for their new lives in Australia, they acknowledge some of the downsides and worry about the health of their parents and other family members in China.

Dong’s father was in the hospital for three months due to kidney failure and cerebral infarction before she moved to Australia. Though he has recovered, Dong still worries about him, as she can not leave Australia to visit her parents.

My parents in China can only rely on my husband. I’m always concerned about whether an unexpected accident will happen.

Angel Dong

Xiaonan Li, 42, arrived in Brisbane in 2023 with her daughter, Rita, on a subclass 590 Student Guardian visa.
As a divorced single mother, she faced financial challenges due to the visa’s work restrictions and lack of financial support from a partner.

Li said the cost of living in Australia eventually forced them to return to China after six months of primary education.

Xiaonan Li

Compared with her past life in China, Xiaonan Li said she had felt lost after coming to Australia as a ‘study mother’. Credit: Supplied.

Their stay had been financed initially from savings earned through a property business and a small store in China, but funds quickly ran out.

“I was running my own business in China and quite used to the working schedule. In Brisbane, my life revolved around my child at a rental place, and I couldn’t find a sense of connection with the outside world,” Li said.
Feeling chronically agitated and unsafe, Li was advised by friends to seek help from a psychiatrist.
She said with her child at school during the day, she had been left feeling isolated.
“I have to be myself first and take good care of myself, so I can take care of my child,” she said.

After six months of being a ‘study mother’, Li returned to China with her homesick daughter, determined to make better preparations before returning to Australia for higher education in the future.

Settling into life in Australia

Chen said her relationship with her son was occasionally “strained” now that he was a teenager.
“Sometimes I can not help thinking, it may be way easier to communicate if he has a father around,” she said.
To improve their relationship, she said she planned mother and son trips to different parts of Australia each year including Melbourne, the Gold Coast and Tasmania.
To alleviate her worries and stresses, she said she worked out regularly and listened to feminism podcasts, striving to keep her life “full”.
Meanwhile, language barriers were a daily challenge for Dong. She said it had taken some time to learn the basics in English such as ordering a coffee or asking for the correct cuts of beef.
To overcome this, Dong said she began memorising English words to build her daily vocabulary, which she then applied in her volunteer work.
She joined NGO Community Action for Better Living (CABL) to offer family support for women, and the Australian Nursing Home Foundation to help the elderly.
“I was the only person with Chinese heritage in my departments of CABL,” she said.
“There is such a group of people who are uprooted, living far from their families, and bravely beginning a new start for their children’s dreams, and that’s mothers.

“However, we can also do it for ourselves and enjoy life a lot.”

Visas set to expire

With their children approaching 18, Chen and Dong’s 590 Student Guardian visas will soon become invalid.

They say they will reluctantly leave Australia as no other visas are available to them.

I have no idea what is going to happen next year. I may return to China. It means I have to say goodbye to everything and every friend here.

Michelle Chen

“After seven years of being a full-time ‘study mother’ in Australia, no companies in China will employ me,” Chen, whose son turns 18 in November next year, said.
“The job market in China is highly competitive, and I’ve been out of workplaces for too long.

“I’ve done all my best, he’s on his own the rest of the way.”

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

Related Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *