A swimming teacher assists a student with a kickboard
Students' skills improved significantly across the length of the program. Photo: UNSW Health Promotions

When COVID-19 shutdowns affected community sport and recreation, the impacts were far reaching.

For many people, these activities are not simply about playing a game, but finding connection and investing in their own wellbeing.

The learn to swim program for UNSW international students coordinated by the Health Promotions Unit and funded by Medibank is one activity that has created a genuine sense of community and belonging for the students involved.

Its reboot following the easing of COVID-19 restrictions has been very much welcomed by the international students who take part.

Scientia PhD candidate at the Centre for Social Research in Health Sujith Kumar said the program’s restart came at a critical time.

“Many of us have felt quite alone and left behind during the pandemic as we are away from our families and have been stuck indoors with online classes and meetings, he said.

“The return of the programme over the summer helped us feel more connected to the university, brought us back as a community and allowed us to enjoy the summer, and to get active, after a long period of isolation.”

A group of students in a pool with a swimming teacher
The lessons created a sense of belonging and security for international students. Photo: UNSW Health Promotions

There were 43 international students participating in the most recent program, coming from all over the globe – including Nepal, India, Indonesia, China, Botswana and Bangladesh.

Prior to the program, 58% of participants reported feeling either nervous, scared or anxious about the water, while at its completion 74% felt confident or very confident in the water.

Swimming skills improved dramatically – with 26% of participants classifying themselves as unable to swim at all before the program, dropping to just 2% by the end of the program.

One of the most important elements of the program was the beach safety workshop, conducted in conjunction with Coogee Surf Lifesaving Club.

Unlike most beach safety session this takes students into the water with the support of the volunteer lifeguards, and for many international students this is a life changing experience.

“The beach safety workshop was the highlight of the program, particularly because there was a significant practical component to it,” said Mr Kumar.

“Some participants had never been to the ocean before, so that was extra special!

“I remember feeling so happy, excited and free that day because we were all challenging ourselves, supporting each other and having fun as we learnt how to look out for rips, how to enter and exit the water, and how to interact safely with waves.

As anyone living here would know (and as my own thesis research shows), beach culture is an important part of what it means to be Australian, and I find that my relationships with my Australians peers have improved quite a bit; they seem really amused and excited that I'm learning how to swim and have offered to "teach" me or join me in the water... it's something we now bond over!”

Two smiling students in a swimming pool
International students developed stronger connections to Australian culture through the program. Photo: UNSW Health Promotions

The connection to Australian culture was something of particular note for a number of participants – finding that connection to their new community after such a long period of isolation was highly significant.

Mr Kumar described the entire experience as life changing.

“Who would have thought that a beginner's swimming programme would have completely changed how I saw my body, introduced me to a new hobby, helped me to finally join my friends in the beach after years of avoiding it, and feel so much closer to Australian culture?” he said.

“If I could do it all over again I would.”