Global

Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright@ Australian Catholic University 1998-2022 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS Reg: 00004G

Olivia Williams

Law for good: The budding solicitor with an eye on social justice


In mid-2021, at the height of the pandemic, ACU undergraduate Olivia Williams was chosen to take part in the highly competitive Victorian Parliament Internship Program. Each year, a select group of university students are tasked with researching a matter of public interest and preparing an evidence-based report, some of which have been so compelling and insightful that they influenced public policy. 

Olivia’s supervisor for the program was Dr Tien Kieu, a Victorian Labor MP who arrived in Australia as a Vietnamese refugee and is now a widely-published researcher in quantum physics. Together, they decided to explore the challenges faced by international students during the pandemic.

“I was very lucky when we were choosing a topic because Dr Kieu was really collaborative and obviously has valuable insights into education and the tertiary sector,” says Olivia, who is currently in the fourth year of her Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Laws (Honours) degree at ACU. 

“We knew that looking into the plight of international students through the pandemic would be useful for Dr Kieu’s constituents because it’s quite a culturally-diverse electorate in the outer south-east of Melbourne. It’s also a topic that suited both of our interests and concerns; but it wasn’t until I started researching that we realised how complex and important the issue is.” 

‘Neglected and overlooked’

Olivia Williams’ report, titled International Students, Neglected in a Time of Crisis: Gaps in Assistance for Overseas Students in Pandemic Time, found that international students encountered many challenges during the pandemic. 

Among the most prominent were examples of heightened racism directed at certain ethnic groups, increased employment instability and loss of income, poor mental health, and a lack of adequate support mechanisms.   

Olivia with Dr Tien Kieu and colleague Vinh

Olivia with Dr Tien Kieu and colleague Vinh.

These challenges came despite the fact that overseas university students contribute extensively to the Victorian economy, leaving thousands of young people “overlooked in a time of crisis”. 

“I was extremely shocked,” Olivia says. “Being a student myself during the pandemic, I could empathise with a lot of the difficulties, but that was nothing compared to what our international student cohort experienced.” 

With no access to the Federal Government’s JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments, many international students went through the pandemic without the financial safety net available to Australian citizens and permanent residents. When restrictions were in place and the virus was spreading rapidly, they were directed by the then-prime minister to return home if they could not support themselves. 

“When it came down to it, there was next to no government support,” Olivia says, adding that she spoke with many international students who felt “horrifically neglected” when lockdowns were in place. 

“It was a real eye opener for me. It just blew my mind that there was such a lack of support for these students who were vulnerable in many different ways.”

Olivia Williams at Australasian Conference of Undergraduate Research.

The report was published in October 2021, complete with a list of six policy recommendations. It soon came to the attention of prominent members of the State Government. Additionally, says Olivia, it acted as a source of comfort for the international students who she met during the research phase of the project. 

“Many of the international students I spoke with really appreciated the attention to their situation,” she says. “They felt heard for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, and I think that says a lot about the level of neglect.” 

While she has been heartened by the response to her research, she says there is still work to be done to improve the situation of international students.

“This is one of the hard things, that international students aren’t Australian citizens so they don’t get to vote at election-time,” she says. “It means that in many cases they get overlooked and they fall through the cracks, which is why we need to spread the message as wide as possible, to shout it from the rooftops.” 

Giving back 

About a year on from when the report was completed, Olivia Williams found herself at the Australasian Conference for Undergraduate Research, an annual event that promotes the outstanding research of undergraduate students. 

The conference theme for 2022 was ‘Shaping the Conversation’, challenging participants to show how their research had explored novel ideas and questioned dominant paradigms.  

“I spoke about the opportunities for research to create positive outcomes for vulnerable and marginalised communities,” says Olivia, who was joined at the conference by fellow ACU student, Yogashree Thirunavukarasu. 

Olivia at the ACUR conference with Dr Karl.

Olivia at the ACUR Conference with Dr Karl.

“As students who have the privilege of higher education, I feel that we have a duty to use that opportunity to advocate for issues that advance the cause of social justice, and give a voice to those who aren’t being heard.” 

Much to her surprise, Olivia’s report won the award for Best Paper in Education Research, a prize sponsored by the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia. 

“I didn’t see it coming because there was so much wonderful research presented at the conference, so to win the award was unexpected and a real blessing,” she says. 

Since completing her internship, Olivia has stayed on at the Parliament of Victoria as an electorate officer for Dr Kieu, a role she has thoroughly enjoyed. She also works as a research associate at Youthplomacy, and as a social media coordinator for Laywers for Peace

While she is currently preparing to go into her honours year at ACU, her long-term goal is to become a solicitor specialising in government law, while continuing to conduct research into political issues. 

“I think that would be a perfect intersection of my interests and skills, and a place that aligns with my values,” Olivia says. 

“I’ve been very fortunate to have lots of opportunities and I’m really mindful of the obligation I have to use those opportunities to do good. I’d like to continue doing fulfilling and purposeful work that makes a difference, that allows me to pursue my passions while helping others and giving back.”  

Keen to pursue social justice and make a positive impact? Explore the options. 

Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright@ Australian Catholic University 1998-2022 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS Reg: 00004G