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Many steps, many years, many rewards: Monica’s journey from South Sudan to Toowoomba

Monica Agoth is from South Sudan, having relocated to Australia as a refugee with her mother and seven brothers and sisters in August 2003. What followed was a very tough journey of education, working hard and career successes — with TAFE Queensland playing an integral role, every step of the way.

“When we came to Australia — five years after applying — we settled in Toowoomba and I went to high school at St. Saviour’s College. It was a really hard move as despite having an uncle here, we didn’t know a lot about Australia, and we were moving to escape the civil war,” Monica began.

“There were some South Sudanese refugees that came here before us — about two or three families, total. But from when we arrived, until 2005, a lot of South Sudanese migrated here, so we started having a sense of community.” 

“Interestingly, South Sudan had so many different tribes, but here, in Toowoomba, we were one. So, we worked together as one. We worked together to support each other and to just live — to live in this new country and to learn the ways that things are done here,” shared Monica.

Monica and her siblings also worked together at home to assist their mother, however their main focus when coming to Australia was education, based on the instructions from her parents (their father stayed behind in South Sudan and served in the war).

“My parents said: ‘You go to Australia, it's a new life, new chance and just focus on studying and becoming someone in the future,’” Monica explained.

After completing high school, TAFE Queensland played a significant role in shaping her career pathway.

“My career journey was not a straight line of course, as is the case when you're young. When I finished high school, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. So, I decided to do a Diploma of Hospitality Management (SIT50422) at TAFE Queensland in 2008 and my teacher was Petra Cross,” said Monica.

During her diploma, Monica and her classmates undertook an industry tour of Palazzo Versace Hotel (now Imperial Hotel) on the Gold Coast.

“We did a tour of the hotel and I fell in love with it. I told myself, ‘One day, I would love to work there’.”

“What I really loved about studying hospitality at TAFE Queensland was that it was a hands-on approach, not a theory-based approach. We learnt how to make coffee, skills like carrying three plates at once, and customer service.”

“I was able to get a job — the first job I applied for when I moved to Brisbane after graduating as a waitress at Piaf Bar and Bistro in South Bank — because of all the skills that I learned in the classroom,” Monica continued.

“In Brisbane I also enrolled in a Bachelor of Hotel and Tourism Management at the University of Queensland whilst working full-time at Piaf Bar and Bistro and Sardin Tin,” said Monica.

After graduating and gaining considerable experience in the hospitality industry, Monica’s dream of working at Palazzo Versace Hotel came true.

“After working in Brisbane for four years, I ended up applying for a job at Palazzo Versace Hotel and I got a position as a waitress. Yes, I left my management position to become a waitress, but it didn’t matter — because I had always wanted to work at Palazzo Versace,” Monica said.

“After three months of working as a waitress, I got offered a supervising position at Versace’s Il Barocco restaurant, which saw me managing about 20 staff alongside the manager, and I was there for three years. I had the best time,” shared Monica.

While working at Palazzo Versace Hotel Monica recognised her passion for teaching.

“I loved hospitality and I loved teaching and talking about hospitality in general. Palazzo Versace had a training restaurant and sometimes I would also go there and volunteer my time and just train the students in front-of-house operations,” continued Monica.

Monica later returned to Brisbane and took a restaurant manager position back at Survey Co. Throughout her career she had kept in contact with TAFE Queensland’s Petra Cross, checking in to see if there were any positions at TAFE Queensland — and there soon was.

Monica subsequently took a part-time, two days per week hospitality tutoring position in Warwick, which would see her travel three hours each way from Brisbane, whilst also working five days at Survey Co.

Eventually Monica was able to secure a position at TAFE Queensland’s Toowoomba campus, as a hospitality tutor, when she was approached by TAFE Queensland’s Adult Migrant English Program’s (AMEP) Manager, now Faculty Director, Anne Smith. 

The AMEP is funded by the Australian Government Department of Home Affairs and provides eligible migrant and refugees with English language tuition that supports their settlement in Australia.

These days, Monica is employed full time as an AMEP teacher at TAFE Queensland’s Toowoomba campus and enjoys sharing her knowledge and experience with students from migrant and refugee backgrounds.

“I love teaching in the AMEP department, especially in the youth team. I knew how difficult it was when I first arrived in Australia — learning a new language, trying to understand a different culture and adjust to a new life and surroundings.” 

“Our job as AMEP teachers is to make sure the students are settling into the community, teaching them basic English so they are capable, confident and can become established.”

“I also think our job is to work as mentors for these students because they come into a new country and everything is new to them, we make sure they feel safe, welcomed and work towards their specific goals,” Monica shared.

Following her experience migrating to Australia as a refugee, Monica has some wise words of encouragement for her students.

“What I normally tell the AMEP students is: ‘This is not an easy journey. It's going to be a hard journey’ but one thing they need to do is not give up” she said.

Australia is a land full of opportunities and I think if you want to get anything or if you want to be anything, you just have to put in the work. But you need to be patient,” Monica said.

To end, Monica offered, “I know I came to this country as a refugee, however, I don’t label myself as a ‘refugee’ anymore. I see myself as a lucky person who got a second chance to live, to learn, to inspire and prosper to achieve my goals and dreams.”