Asia Options: 6 Years (and Counting)

As our Asia Options team looks ahead to address the changing global landscape and opportunities in a post-COVID world, Asia Options Co-founders, Mirai Kirsanovs and Olly Theobald, reflect on what’s changed since Asia Options launched in 2014.

A Landscape Transformed

In 2014, Asia Options launched with the goal of informing and guiding young Australians to deepen their engagement with Asia through education and career opportunities. Looking back now at the discourse around Asia in Australia, we can see just how much has changed in the last six years.

Part of this change has been an actualisation en masse of what Asia Options was established to encourage:

  • demystification of a diverse region with many cultures,
  • facilitation of professional and economic mobility, and
  • a more ‘Asia-literate’ generation.

We are delighted to have played a part, however small, in this positive shift, but we still believe there is work to be done!

The catalyst for Asia Options was returning to Australia after our own experiences studying and living in Asia to see that the prevailing view of Asia still held by many of our peers was of a holiday destination, rather than a genuine work or study option. We were driven by the desire to change this and to build awareness of the various work, study, and leadership opportunities across Asia.

Mirai Kirsanovs
Asia Options co-founders, Olly & Mirai

Anyone in the vanguard of Asia-Australia co-operation will undoubtedly have a story or two remarking the massive difference from their first visit as a ‘foreigner’, compared to more recent in-country experiences. Where a cursory greeting in the local language may have elicited a few oohs and ahhs in years past, a higher level of competency is now often expected in major cities. Concurrently, the growth in sheer volume and breadth of opportunities available speaks for itself.

Dan Poole and Mirai Kirsanovs on SBS radio (2015)

When I applied for my first study abroad grant to study in China, there were 12 places and 11 applicants. So there wasn’t even a courtesy rejection letter sent out that year! A $5,000 grant to study in China in 2010 with a soaring Australian dollar felt like winning the lottery and we wanted to tell other people about these opportunities.

Olly Theobald

Although at the time of writing, the Coronavirus outbreak and geopolitical tensions have put a dampener on international travel and study, the landscape of Australia-Asia mobility opportunities is fortunately as vibrant as ever, both at an institutional and grassroots level.

You can rest assured that the growing number of like-minded organisations such as Australia China Youth Organisation (ACYA), Australia India Youth Dialogue (AIYD), Australia Indonesia Youth Association (AIYA), Australia Korea Young Professional Association (AKYPA), ASEAN-Australia Strategic Youth Partnership (AASYP), Asialink, and many others are definitely not on pause, and are constantly striving to open doors for Aussies looking northward.

In addition, scholarships like the New Colombo Plan have exploded in desirability for high achievers aiming to study in Asia. As a result, we are beginning to see a new wave of Asia-oriented minds entering the workforce. Two-way education between an increasing number of universities and regions has also boomed by way of study tours and practical programs. While inbound students from Asia continues to increase and is by far the largest source of international students into Australia, between 2009 and 2019, Australian participation in learning abroad increased five-fold, with approximately 50% of study taking place in the Indo-Pacific Region.

When we started compiling opportunities for the website in 2013, the New Colombo Plan didn’t exist, nor did CAUSINDY, Asia Recon, the China Australia Millennial Program, the Australia Vietnam Youth Dialogue, Australia Japan Youth Dialogue and many other programs that promote engagement with Asia.

Olly Theobald

Through 7 major partnerships, 34 collaborations, and 5 successful grants, we have been able to expand the scope of our humble website and deliver more relevant content to our community.  Notably, we have expanded to six focus regions, launching our India team in 2015, but we are looking forward to further represent other rising players in Asia.

We were also able to launch our Language Program Reviews (LPR) project after seed funding from the Foundation for Young Australians – Young Social Pioneers Program, which has proven to be a popular resource for students wanting to develop their language skills in-country. This platform reflected Asia Options’ evolution away from why young Australian’s should consider Asia for work and study to how they could do it. Our LPR collection is about sharing peer-based reviews that can help others find the most suitable language program to fit their individual needs and learning styles.

Nevertheless, as the Asia-Australia space has become increasingly dynamic, there is an unprecedented need for resources to enter and navigate this complex, interconnected landscape. While joining prominent country-focused groups, such as ACYA or AIYA is a great way to deepen your engagement with a particular country, keeping on top of broader developments and the expanding array of opportunities can be tough. Asia Options is determined to continue working with partners to provide useful information and resources, empowering Australians to unlock opportunities all throughout Asia.

Team planning sess in Melbourne (2015)

From Untapped Potential to Deeper Understanding 

Tracking with the trends of wider discourse, Asia Options has also gradually moved away from the ideas of ‘untapped potential’ and ‘competitive advantage’ in Asia to providing more balanced commentary and insights into the rewards and challenges of building a career outside Australia.

The space continues to develop and our original mission is no longer as relevant. The focus has shifted from why we should look to Asia for exciting and meaningful study and professional opportunities, to guiding our community to the most suitable opportunity and experience for them. We’ve done this by establishing new platforms such as our Language Program Review and adjusting what we focus on when sharing opportunities.

One thing has not changed in our approach, that is that people and community are at the core of everything we do. Building a community around the cause and empowering those within it by giving them a platform to be active changemakers is still crucial to our success, and to affecting sustained change.

Mirai Kirsanovs

As Robbie Shields, a career advisor for students in China, summed up our philosophy in one Asia Options post, “China is a country, not a career.” For many young people, studying and working in Asia is not a pre-made or clear-cut career path and, for many, it simply doesn’t work out. But virtually no one we talk to laments their time abroad as a wasted opportunity. 

Beyond the scholarship money that is usually handed out by one government or another, the experiences had boozing in Seoul, exploring the Indonesian jungle with classmates, or enjoying hanami season with friends in Kyoto are only found on exchange or interning/working in-country.

Olly Theobald

That is not to detract from the huge number of success stories from people working in cool and exciting jobs in Asia, often having studied there previously. Every country has its unique draw cards – with its own vibrant community and vast chronicles of both successes and challenges, which we hope to share as a guide for anyone embarking on their own journey in Asia.

A virtual Asia Options team meeting conducted via Zoom (2020)

Bring on the ’20s

We are extremely proud of what Asia Options has achieved in the past six years. From a side project of two uni students, 41 amazing team members have since contributed to building the organisation. Every team member, partner, and community member we have crossed paths with along the way have only reinforced our optimism for future development between Australia and Asia.

Even with travel bans persisting, a perk of the digital age and our platform is undoubtedly the ability to congregate information from the widest stretches of Asia onto our platform (although there will never be a substitute for experiencing it yourself!).

From the skyscrapers of Taipei to the slopes of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, Asia Options stands uniquely as an independent resource focussing on compiling and sharing this information, based on real experiences. Finally, we’d like to give a hearty thanks to our readers for helping us to achieve the milestone of 1 million visits in the past year – we will use this encouragement to spur continued output of insightful and useful content.

Without a doubt, the highlight of the past 6 years has been working with the team. Asia Options has been built by an incredible group of people who have volunteered their time, energy and passion into furthering our cause. The diverse perspectives and experiences of our team have made the platform all the stronger, and my time with them all the richer.

Mirai Kirsanovs
Our new directors, Alex & Kate

As our Co-Founders, Mirai and Olly, hand over the reins to Kate Kalinova and Alex Ekkel, we are excited to look ahead to what the future holds! Asia Options will continue to support other organisations and our readers in building awareness of what’s out there—right on Australia’s doorstep, to tackle the learning curve that comes with living in another country, and to make the most of the experiences on offer.

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