More than a course: How an international student found her sense of belonging


A/Prof. Mira Kim on the left and UNSW student Mathilde Bourgeois on the right, during the PELE course last term
A/Prof. Mira Kim on the left and UNSW student Mathilde Bourgeois on the right

Published 19 July 2023

by Laura E. Goodin 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Mira: Why did you choose to study at UNSW?

Mathilde: When I looked at all the universities, UNSW was the first one that got my attention, because it seemed so free-spirited and accepting, with a welcoming atmosphere. And the Bachelor of Arts was so diverse, with so many options. I was already interested in Korean culture, so I thought, Korean studies. 

Mira: Your English is already good. Why did you do the PELE course?

Mathilde: When I did my IELTS, my results didn’t meet my expectations – I wanted to be good in everything. And I thought, This is the start of uni. So it's the best moment to start improving my English so I don't have to do it later. 

Mira: How did you find out about PELE?

Mathilde: It’s a prescribed elective in my bachelor’s program, and I saw it was personalised, and it sounded already like way more fun [than the other electives].

Mira: Did you know what kind of course this would be? When you watched the [introductory] videos, what did you think?

Mathilde: I felt like it was more than a university course, that it was self-improvement. And the videos talked about the PELE community. I thought, Oh, that's way more fun than I expected. 

Mira: When you started the course, did it meet your expectations?

Mathilde: Way more, I think. Since we were all international students, there was a sense of belonging, like I could relate to all of them. I felt like being in an international-student community made me feel more safe, more accepted. And when I left each lecture, I always thought, Oh, I learned something very valuable – in terms of improving my life, but also there was so much learning that I didn't expect that I was going to get. I just thought I was going to learn academic writing. There's way more than that. And there was individual learning and individual improvement, but this felt more like we were all learning together and helping each other more than just helping ourselves.

PELE changed my mindset. You showed us that grades are not the priority. It's more about the path that we take more than the results. It’s not that I don't care about my study now, but I don't prioritise my grades. I still want to be good, but I don't want to be perfect.

When I graduated high school with good grades and my parents were like, “Wow!”, I didn't feel satisfied. Why? Because I think I didn't enjoy the process. Something was missing. But now the whole process feels more enjoyable, and in the end, even if it's not perfect, I don't really care because I enjoyed the process.

Mira: What particular aspect of PELE helped you to change your mindset?

Mathilde: The human connection that I feel like in other classes we're lacking. There's no connection. We just go there, study, learn and then leave.

Mira: People might be interested in hearing whether your academic writing has improved and how you know.

Mathilde: I can't really compare to past grades, as this is just my first time. But I feel like it's more about like the feeling that I get when I write. I don't really hate it anymore. And it just feels less like a duty. I can put my own ideas down and express myself more easily than before. So it feels more freeing. And when my mum reads my essays, she says, “Oh, this is so good.” 

Mira: What are the most important takeaways and learnings from the PELE course?

Mathilde: To challenge myself to try things that I would have never tried before, so I can get out of my comfort zone and overcome my shyness. It was hard for me to be happy in Switzerland, because I was stuck in the same like loop of not wanting to improve. I didn't want to be happier.

PELE was the thing that made me think, Okay, I want to be a better person. I want to be more happy – because I was so inspired. I opened myself to new things, new experiences. 

Mira: Is there anything that you learned about yourself? 

Mathilde: I could let myself actually enjoy things that I didn't want to enjoy before. Like swimming in the freezing ocean at 9 a.m.! I’d never done it. And then I just decided – if Mira says, “Okay, let's go,” you can find it in yourself. 


Laura Nierengarten’s contributions to this article are gratefully acknowledged.


Enjoyed this article? Share it with your network!