Amrit Pal Kaur, a PhD student at the University of New England, was named NSW's International Student of the Year in Sydney last week.
The Indian insect ecologist came to Armidale in 2016 to study dung beetles, but has dedicated her time away from the lab to volunteering in her new community - sharing Indian dance and food, helping students, teaching children, and winning sports tournaments.
The state governor, the Hon. Margaret Beazley, presented Amrit the prestigious award at a ceremony at Government House in Sydney on Wednesday, October 2.
"I'm pretty honoured with such a huge recognition at this level," Amrit said.
The award, Study NSW's website reads, recognises international students' outstanding contributions to NSW communities, and celebrates excellence in international student community engagement.
Amrit submitted her PhD thesis in August. When she graduates, she will also receive the New England Award, presented to students involved in social and community activities that develop life skills. She also received the "Ben Bible Award" from UNE Life on October 3, for her participation and contribution to student life.
She plans to settle in this quiet, peaceful town. "I love living in Armidale," she said. "This town has given me so much love, affection, and appreciation. I want to serve this nation now, and if I could do it by living in Armidale, I would be proud to."
Coming to Australia, Amrit said, was a fresh start after a mishap. She grew up in a rural village 80km from Amritsar in the Punjab, in a close-knit Sikh family. Her twin brother was getting married; the day before, she bought an expensive dress to wear ... then met with a road accident. She broke her teeth, badly bruised her face, and missed the wedding altogether.
Depressed at missing celebrations she had looked forward to for years, she wanted to move on.
"I was one of those people who never wanted to leave India, but I decided I needed to start again, to rejuvenate my life," Amrit said.
She thought of post-graduate work in Germany or London, but decided on Armidale.
"If I look back, I was struggling to decide whether to leave my country," Amrit said. "Should I go to Australia; should I start studying at a place with a different culture? Now I am proud that I made that decision, and came here."
UNE and Armidale, she said, have been comfortable places to live and study. "People are very welcoming. They admire your skills; they support you."
Dung beetles may not be very glamorous - but, Amrit said, they are gems for farmers. They improve soil fertility; as they tunnel through the dirt, they improve soil aeration, fertility, and plant growth. In her research, she wants to save dung beetles, and increase their efficiency in Australia.
That involved studying poo for a year. "I was really interested to find out the nutritional assessment of dung beetles," Amrit said. "What do they like to eat? If they like to eat poo, what type? What is inside this poo that they really love to eat and open? So I studied poo quality for 12 months. How does it vary through all 12 months?"
The beetles, Amrit discovered, are fussy eaters. They turn up their noses - or, rather, their antennae - at winter poo. Only summer poo has the right consistency, the right bouquet, the right amount of nutrition. Who knew coprophages would be such gourmets?
Amrit, her supervisor Nigel Andrew, and their team will work on other Australian species over the next couple of years.
"I'm afraid of cockroaches, but insects are so fascinating!" Amrit said. "They're like a complete package of creativity. If you see how an insect walks, flies, folds or spreads its wings, it's full of technology we're dealing with in science today."
While doing her research, Amrit also looked for opportunities to volunteer through community engagements, cultural activities, and sharing Punjabi food.
"I think I have become more responsible towards my community, towards other international communities, towards native peoples," she said. "I have learnt how to respect people: their cultures, their tradition, their religion, their food."
She was involved with the UNE International Hub from her arrival in Australia. In her first year, 2016, she performed cultural dances, and single-handedly ran an Indian food stall by herself at the UNE International Hub's Culturefest.
"I cooked food for more than 200 people by myself, and I stayed awake until 3am!"
A team of dancers and volunteers will help her at this year's event, in November.
Amrit was a UNE student ambassador from 2017 to 2019; an international student police ambassador; and a buddy ambassador, talking to future students about gown and town life. To help international students settle, she also created a 'What's up?' Facebook page. She also worked with the UNE student support team; answering students' calls, she said, improved her English. After submitting her thesis, she now works at the international office.
"After my scholarship, I didn't have any money to pay rent or food," Amrit said. "I'm just lucky that UNE recognises your worth."
Amrit is a Sikh. With her community, she raised money to distribute more than 900 water bottles to attendees at the New England festival this year. Now, they serve free food every month at UNE's Madgwick Hall.
"We are supposed to donate 10 per cent of our income to charity," Amrit said. "We feel proud to do so, that we are doing something really great for humanity."
She is a member of Zonta International (a group for empowering women through service and advocacy). For PEDAL Early Intervention, an Armidale educational provider, she has shown her dung beetles to young children and primary school kids. She was Sport UNE's badminton club secretary, and competed in tournaments in and outside Armidale.
Amrit has made a lot of friends here, she said; people here smile a lot. "They always have time to welcome you, to say a nice hello."
She thanked her supervisor, Professor Nigel Andrew, for his support for her studies, and providing a sound atmosphere to do community work as well.