These ‘study mothers’ gave up everything to give their children an Australian education

Most important points
  • More than 50 percent of Student Guardian visa holders come from China. Many of these women are known as “study mothers.”
  • While some guardians are excited about the opportunity to start a new life in Australia, most face pressures such as language barriers and financial concerns.
  • This visa does not allow for work or long-term study. The visa expires when the child turns 18.
Michelle Chen, Angel Dong and Xiaonan Li are known within the Chinese community as ‘study mothers’ because they accompany their young children to Australia to study.
They say all “student mothers deserve applause” for the financial struggles, language barriers, personal relationship issues and moments of deep loneliness they experience in a new country.
Their visa conditions do not allow them to study or work for long periods, leaving some mothers homesick.
Data from the Australian Department of Home Affairs showed that there were almost 3,000 Chinese mothers in the country accompanying their children in June 2024
Chen and Dong, who decided to stay, told SBS Chinese that Australian education was “worth it” because of the fierce competition for quality education at schools in China and the prospects for their children to gain permanent residency in Australia.

“Australia is an attractive alternative for many of us because of its temperate climate and large Chinese diaspora,” said Dong, who arrived in Australia in early 2024.

Student Guardian Visa

To study in Australia, international students under the age of 18 must arrange accommodation or be accompanied by a guardian.
Their guardians often hold a Student Guardian visa subclass 590, which prohibits them from working, studying for long periods, or leaving their children behind except in exceptional circumstances.

According to the Ministry of the Interior, as of June 2024, there were 6,084 Student Guardian visa holders and of them, more than half (3,419) were Chinese citizens.

Michelle Chen with her son Ethan Peng

Michelle Chen with her son, Ethan Peng, in Tasmania in January. Credit: Delivered.

Chen has been in Australia with her son Ethan Peng for the past seven years, since they arrived in Sydney in 2017.

“Only a mother can give so much to her child. Most accompanying experiences inevitably result in the separation of a couple, which has negative consequences for the family,” Chen said.
Chen believes that mentoring children to study abroad not only provides a better education for the child, but also gives mothers the opportunity to forge a new path in life.
“The relationship with the child’s father deteriorated and the atmosphere in the family became increasingly worse. That put a lot of pressure on me,” she says.
“If I had stayed in China, it would have become increasingly unbearable for my mental health. I even had to see a psychiatrist at that point.”

Chen, who relies on rental income from her properties in China, says moving to Australia was a way for her to start over.

Angel Dong with her daughter Leyi Yao

Angel Dong (right) and her daughter, Leyi Yao, live in Sydney. Credit: Delivered.

Dong, 47, quit her well-paid job at a foreign-backed company in Shanghai earlier this year and decided to travel to Australia with her daughter to seek better education opportunities.
“It wasn’t part of my plan,” Dong said.
“At our age, you quickly get burned out at work, and I had been working at my company for over 20 years.
“I just wanted to find a way to try a different life. It’s important to believe that women our age are very powerful and experienced, we need to experience this with a stay vibe.”

Dong said they are supported in Australia by her husband, who has remained in China.

Disadvantages of being a guardian

Despite Chen and Dong’s enthusiasm for their new life in Australia, they also recognise the drawbacks and worry about the health of their parents and other family members in China.

Dong’s father was hospitalized for three months with kidney failure and a stroke before she moved to Australia. Although he has recovered, Dong still worries about him because she cannot leave Australia to visit her parents.

My parents in China can only rely on my husband. I always worry about whether an unexpected accident will happen.

Angel Dong

Xiaonan Li, 42, arrived in Brisbane in 2023 with her daughter Rita on a Student Guardian visa subclass 590.
As a divorced single mother, she faced financial difficulties due to the work restrictions of the visa and the lack of financial support from her partner.

Li said the high cost of living in Australia eventually forced them to return to China after six months of primary education.

Xiaonan Li

Xiaonan Li said she felt lost when she came to Australia as a ‘study mum’, compared to her previous life in China. Credit: Delivered.

Their stay was initially financed with savings they had earned from a real estate company and a small shop in China, but the money soon ran out.

“I had my own business in China and was quite used to the work schedule. In Brisbane, my life revolved around my child in a rented house and I couldn’t find a sense of connection with the outside world,” Li said.
Because Li felt chronically agitated and unsafe, friends advised him to seek help from a psychiatrist.
She said she felt isolated because her child was in school during the day.
“I have to be myself first and take care of myself so I can take care of my child,” she said.

After six months as a ‘study mother’, Li returned to China with her homesick daughter, determined to prepare herself better before returning to Australia to study further in the future.

Getting used to life in Australia

Chen said her relationship with her son was “strained” at times now that he was a teenager.
“Sometimes I think it would be a lot easier to communicate if he had a father around,” she said.
To improve their relationship, she planned mother-son trips each year to different parts of Australia, including Melbourne, the Gold Coast and Tasmania.
To relieve her worries and stress, she exercised regularly and listened to feminist podcasts, striving to keep her life “full.”
Meanwhile, language barriers were a daily challenge for Dong. She said it took her some time to learn the basics of English, such as how to order a cup of coffee or ask for the right cuts of beef.
To overcome this problem, Dong began to memorize English words to expand her daily vocabulary, which she then applied in her volunteer work.
She joined the NGO Community Action for Better Living (CABL) to provide family support to women, and the Australian Nursing Home Foundation to help the elderly.
“I was the only person of Chinese ancestry in my department at CABL,” she said.
“There is a group of people who are uprooted, living far from their families and bravely making a new start to make their children’s dreams come true, and those are mothers.

“But we can also do it for ourselves and enjoy life to the fullest.”

Visas Expiring Soon

Now that their children are almost 18, Chen and Dong’s 590 Student Guardian visas will soon expire.

They say they will be reluctant to leave Australia as there are no other visas available for them.

I have no idea what will happen next year. I might go back to China. That means saying goodbye to everything and every friend here.

Michelle Chen

“After working as a full-time ‘study mom’ in Australia for seven years, no company in China will hire me anymore,” said Chen, whose son turns 18 in November next year.
“The job market in China is very competitive and I have not been working for too long.

“I did my best, he has to travel the rest of the way alone.”

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