My Story — Student Voice Update: Tahlia Danks
Tahlia Danks grew up in a low socioeconomic suburb in Sydney’s south west, and is the first in her family to consider attending university after having participated in the University of Technology Sydney (UTS)’s Widening Participation Strategy U@Uni program in 2012.
In 2017, the NCSEHE featured Tahlia through the My Story — Student Voice series. We caught up with Tahlia again to talk about her path through education, moving forward to work with Charles Sturt University’s Future Moves program, helping other underrepresented students realise their full potential.
I love learning, and as far back as I can remember, have always wanted to go to university. Of course, my love for learning was a huge motivator in me wanting to pursue higher education, but I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that the main reason I wanted to go was to make my parents proud — to make the most of the opportunities they were never fortunate enough to receive. But it wasn’t an easy road to get there.
I grew up in a troubled suburb in Sydney’s south west, where I attended my local high school — a low socioeconomic status public school where almost 80 per cent of students came from non-English speaking backgrounds; many were refugees.
The school simply didn’t have the resources to adequately invest in students who may have wished to pursue higher education, nor the capacity to run the Higher School Certificate (HSC) subjects required to meet basic university prerequisite or assumed knowledge entry requirements. Straight off the bat, and without any fault of our own, we were already at a disadvantage.
Students at my school were all deemed at-risk, yet had very little support. The lack of resources, coupled with the absence of an informative careers advisor, greatly affected the way we viewed higher education. To us, university was something that seemed only accessible to the wealthy or to those who lived within proximity to the Sydney CBD. This view was also exemplified by the fact that almost all students, including myself, lacked guidance in our homes about university, being the first in our family to even have the opportunity to attend.
I would like to note that many of us had a desire to pursue higher education, but a combination of the aforementioned reasons saw students who were more than capable of entering university and pursuing their dream jobs, fall through the cracks. As much as I would like to think it was my love for learning and determination to succeed that led me away from this downward spiral, I actually owe my journey into university to the UTS U@Uni Schools Outreach Program I attended in 2012 as a Year 11 student.
To provide some background, U@Uni is a key component of the UTS Widening Participation Strategy (WPS) which, funded by the HEPPP, is run by the Equity and Diversity Unit, and is comprised of two main programs — the flagship ‘Summer School’ program and the ‘HSC Tutorial Scheme’. At a basic level, these initiatives aim to build aspiration for tertiary study, support academic attainment, and widen the participation of underrepresented communities in higher education.
Attending the U@Uni Summer School changed my life. It not only provided me with the opportunity to experience life on campus for two weeks—attending intensive classes in a chosen faculty with students in similar situations to myself—but it also allowed me to return for a range of follow-up workshops and events. Continuing throughout the rest of my schooling these provided me with the information about higher education that I simply couldn’t receive at school or home.
It was through these multiple touch points with the university throughout my senior schooling that I saw higher education as a feasible part of my future all the way from the end of Year 10, until university offers were released post-graduating Year 12. At that point, I was accepted into the Bachelor of Communication at UTS and engaged by the Equity and Diversity Unit as an Equity Ambassador.
My role as an Equity Ambassador provided me with the opportunity to network with other staff at the university, leading to employment opportunities within my chosen field, and ensured I had an income during my degree. More importantly, it gave me a chance to work on the very same programs that I had benefitted from only months earlier, working as a Media Mentor at multiple summer schools, and as a HSC tutor at other low socioeconomic schools in the area where I grew up.
I remember walking to my office a couple of years ago when a young man came up to me, gave me an all-encompassing hug, and exclaimed, “I’m here — I made it! Thank you for everything, Miss! See you around!” Taken aback, I realised it was one of the students I had been tutoring via the HSC Tutorial Scheme throughout his senior schooling. I still remember the pained look in his eyes in our first session when I asked him what he wanted to do after school, and he answered, “economics at university. But I’ll never get in, so I’ll work for Dad as a carpenter”. Yet, here he was at Orientation Week.
Fast forward a few years and I now work in School Outreach for Charles Sturt University’s own HEPPP funded program, Future Moves. In this role, I not only get the privilege of assisting underrepresented students each day with realising their potential, but I also get to watch widening participation and equity grow to become a part of the strategic objectives of Australian universities, encouraging us to be what we always should have been — institutions for public good.
When I consider the cyclical nature of my higher education journey—from participating in the UTS U@Uni program, to becoming a university student, to coordinating the UTS U@Uni program, and now coordinating the CSU Future Moves program—it fills me with happiness. Not just because I’m in a job I love, and not just because I achieved more than I thought I was capable of, but because to me there is no better way to pay it forward than to contribute my experiences and career to the very same projects and programs that led me to where I am today.