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September 20, 2009

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Australia wants to keep in touch ...

With an estimated 60,000 Chinese nationals studying at universities in Australia, a concerted effort has been made to provide them with a tangible continuing link to their institutions and fellow students after they return home.

This is being done by the two-year-old Australia China Alumni Association (ACAA) in partnership with 19 Australian universities and government agencies.

The result is a burgeoning network of Chinese graduates sustaining links with their alma mater and sharing experiences with fellow nationals about their time in Australia.

The organization was founded in September 2007 by Beijing businessman Edward Smith who believes it gives alumni a "family" and a strong, selective social and business network when they return after studying in Australia.

"For many alumni, the time they spent in Australia was a real highlight and a life-changing period in their lives," he said.

"Many are very keen to keep in touch with Australia and their old friends from university as well as the university at which they studied."

Smith, who has lived in China for 15 years, is a graduate of Melbourne, Monash and Johns Hopkins/Nanjing universities and managing director of the Beijing Consulting Group.

Since its inception, the alumni association has signed on more than 3,350 members throughout China, staged monthly events in Beijing and Shanghai, expanded to Guangzhou and recently launched its Australian China Alumni Awards with winners to be announced in November.

It has attracted sponsorship from organizations such as ANZ Bank, CPA Australia, Qantas, Austrade and Elders, companies Smith said want to put something back into the Chinese community and also follow their customers back to China.

The support for the association has driven Smith to initiate an alumni awards event, entry for which will close this Friday. (See for more information.)

"We aim to recognize outstanding contributions made by alumni in a broad range of sectors, from entrepreneurship to banking and finance, to research and innovation to culture and the arts," he said.

At the same time, the awards will showcase the quality of Australian tertiary education through alumni achievements.

"We want to encourage alumni to be all they can be and to celebrate the success of some really high achievers," Smith said.

"People are inspired to know that the president of Nokia China is an alumni, that the president and CFO of General Motors China are both Australian alumni, and that the vice minister of health, the president of Nankai University and the COO of the listed Intime Department Store group all studied at Australian universities.

"For some winners, such as the CPA Australia Alumni of the Year Award, it is more about recognition rather than career development, as the winner will quite likely already be highly successful," he said.

"But for other prizes like the Arts & Culture Award or the Young Entrepreneur Award, it will hopefully add to the alumnis' profiles and spur them on to even greater heights."

In Mongolia, Smith said, there is a group called the Mongolian Ozzies, and in Hong Kong the Federation of Australian Alumni Associations links 20 university chapters.


Others operate in Indonesia, India, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and many other countries.

But Smith's organization is unique in China, although others are trying to establish a national model.

"The Dutch have a reasonably well-established network and the French are active too," Smith said.

"The US universities, though, are mainly running independent chapters rather than a large umbrella association."

He says the ACAA doesn't try to cut out the work done by individual university's alumni chapters, rather it supports and supplements their academic exchanges and locally taught programs.

"We help on the ground to use university resources effectively by finding synergies, for example, in sharing media, hotel and venue contacts, by leveraging the skills and contacts of the entire combined alumni network, and by knowing how to operate and get things done on the ground in China with Chinese-speaking staff," he said.

"While individual universities may not be able to run events in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou each and every month, by working together we can and we're even now experimenting with smaller, irregular events in cities like Kunming and Nanning and so on."

The ACAA membership database is growing by approximately 150 alumni per month and Smith expects it to continue doing so.

"Members are super enthusiastic about our events and activities and we get lots of support from volunteers," he said.

The ACAA also helps alumni find jobs and companies find high-quality staff. "In the long term we want to increase the amount of philanthropic work we do. We'd love to set up a scholarship fund to help more hard-working and deserving Chinese students to have the chance to study in Australia," he said.

"So far our largest charity project has been to donate more than 35,000 yuan (US$5,128) in June 2008 to help build temporary classrooms in Sichuan following the devastating earthquake there."

But in the short term, Smith and his able sidekicks Amanda Barry (Beijing) and Sarah Stewart (Shanghai) are focused on their inaugural awards event which they want to grow in prestige.


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