Keeli Cambourne
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A love of languages inspired Christopher to give back to community

University Medallist established Language Exchange program to help students practice their skills. 

Christopher Khatouki tries to speak to almost anyone – literally. He knows three languages and dabbles in many more, believing in the power of communication and its capacity to effect change.

Christopher yesterday (Wednesday 24 April) received the University Medal for the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry for his outstanding academic achievements, but it’s his work with the wider community of which he is most proud.

With Lebanese and Greek heritage, Christopher grew up multilingual and realised early on that being able to speak to people in their own language opened the door to cultural exchange.

“I love to learn and speak other languages because it allows you to see into the culture of other people,” Christopher said.

He wanted to combine his love of language with his passion for politics and completed a Bachelor of International Studies (Dean’s Scholar), double majoring in Mandarin and International Relations before doing an Honours’ year in political science. He graduated from the University of Wollongong (UOW) yesterday, alongside his fellow students from the Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts.

“I am really interested in that intersection between history and politics and especially how stable political institutions react to external stress,” he said.

To that end, Christopher wrote his thesis on the Gwangju Massacre in South Korea in 1980 to better understand how rapid economic, social and cultural change affects the internal dynamics of political systems.

“This is a moment in history that was relatively overlooked in Western scholarly attentions so it was very rewarding to study it,” he said.

Teaching the next generation about the importance of international relations has been an integral part of Christopher’s journey through his tertiary studies. During his time at UOW, Christopher has put his studies into action and volunteered with United Nations Youth programs, organising and running an annual forum for high schools throughout the Illawarra.

“We run workshops and interactive activities to cultivate the new wave of leaders and get them interested in the affairs of the world,” he said.

“I like to get students to think beyond Australia and to think globally, notifying them and empowering them of their potential to make global change and to be prepared for the challenges we face as a nation in the future.”

He has achieved academic success and is still helping shape the minds of tomorrow’s leaders, but Christopher says the thing he is most proud of during his time at UOW is the Language Exchange program, which he established in his second year of study.

“It started off as a small idea three or four years ago with a small grant from the University and has turned into something bigger,” he said.

“The program is twofold. Language students meet with native speakers to practice the language they are learning, and international students come to make new friends and share their culture.

“We have exchange sessions that run weekly and also hold special community events. The idea behind this is that as students we learn a language in the classroom but there is little opportunity to practice it outside of the classroom.

“We have a lot of international students at the University, and I thought setting up language exchange sessions not only helps language students practice but it also helps those international students to meet new people and make friends in a non-threatening environment.

“Since the program started it has skyrocketed. I never expected it to become so big.”

Christopher currently serves as a councillor at the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW but is about to embark on the next chapter of his life, teaching English in Korea.

“I plan to stay in South Korea for a few years and get some international experience then come back and do a PhD,” he said.

“I don’t want to live a life where I am not making an impact in my community. I firmly believe the more you put out, the more you get back. I have always had a strong passion for giving back, and leaving a place somewhat better than when I arrived.

“I want to make sure that I make a positive contribution in any place I live and in any community in which I work.”