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Student Voice — Stories of Success: Jonathan Sae-Koew

Jonathan Sae-Koew was streamed out of ATAR at school, deemed “not good enough” to go to university. Disillusioned and disengaged, Jonathan says he was eventually denied appropriate schooling, with teachers encouraging him to sleep in class and go home early.

Despite this discouraging start, and after 10 years of study, Jonathan has recently completed his doctoral studies in psychology. Examiners marked his thesis as being within the top 10 per cent of PhD student theses they had marked within their areas of expertise.

We originally met Jonathan in 2017 as one of our first My Story — Student Voice participants. Four years on, he now reflects back on his journey of perseverance and determination, supported by university enabling programs and a dedicated group of practitioners and educators who recognised Jonathan’s great potential.

— Jonathan’s story (2021)

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Although I was disengaged from learning at school, I recall a defining moment when I happened upon an interesting philosophy book that really sparked my interest for pursuing higher education.Looking back, I think a key message I’ve taken from my educational journey is that it simply took a few tries, but there were key things that helped me through:

  1. Having a fundamental interest in something I wanted to learn (philosophy), though it took me a few tries at things (I went to tech college to learn cooking, and at one point wanted to be a dog trainer at TAFE). I do understand that it can be quite difficult to try and engage with interests in that way after being so disengaged but I do think actively aligning your interests with further learning really helps.
  2. Persevering to push on despite all the bad experiences I’ve had with learning prior to my journey. It’s important to understand that what people tell you (in high school) is not reflective of your capacity to pursue whatever you want. I think that it’s not so much about how smart or clever you are or whether “you have it or not” (as I was told by my teachers) but just about believing that your interest will take you where you want to go.
  3. Taking advantage of as many supports as I could. I was very lucky to have found out about Murdoch’s university enabling program to get into university. That’s why equity and support for young people pursuing their careers (may that be in higher education or in any other educational pursuit) is so important, particularly to disadvantaged young people. Presenting young people with the capacity and knowledge to pursue their interests for knowledge in any field is so important and I think I wasn’t given that chance in high school, but I was, again, very lucky that Murdoch University had that for me when I found it.

I think everyone has the capacity to pursue their interests and that teachers should facilitate, or at the very least find out what is a barrier to, their being able to achieve that rather than writing students off if they begin to show disengagement from learning.

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— Jonathan’s story (2017)

I grew up in the suburbs of Perth, Western Australia, attending both government and private high schools. I had an affinity for the arts, sciences and a particular interest in English literature, but always struggled finding the motivation to apply myself to my studies.

I suffered a lot of bullying, and was made to feel inadequate by my teachers who told me I wasn’t good enough to go to university. Ultimately, they refused to teach me, encouraging me just to sleep in class and letting me go home early.

Although my teachers streamed me out of ATAR, I still aspired to go to university. Most of my family had pursued tertiary education, but in the end I just couldn’t picture myself there, given my low self-esteem, gradually eroded throughout my school life. By the time I reached Year 10, the barriers in my way seemed insurmountable and I dropped out of school.

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A few years on, I enrolled in Canning College’s Flying Start program. Although I felt I was going through the motions of Year 11 study, a personal interest in philosophy and psychology began to emerge. I was advised to join Murdoch University’s OnTrack program in order to move towards the university degree I would require if I was going to shape a future around learning and helping people.

I learned a lot from OnTrack, notably that if I pushed myself and persevered then I could achieve my goals. It took me two attempts to complete the program, but I finally felt motivated by a sense of purpose and direction in my career path, and passed second time with High Distinctions.

Through OnTrack, I discovered skills for learning and tailoring my education around my interests, building my confidence and teaching me the critical thinking and research skills that would be the foundations on which to build my knowledge.

I am now doing my PhD in Psychology after graduating with First Class Honours in Murdoch University’s undergraduate Psychology and Philosophy course. I’m learning so much and developing new skills which provide opportunities for personal growth, both mentally and academically.

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Through telling my story to students, and collecting data at schools in Kalgoorlie and the Peel region, it became apparent that they were often overwhelmed by the pressure to achieve a high ATAR. They were inspired to learn that there are other pathways to achieving your goals if you persevere and are willing to put in the hard work, despite the obstacles you may face.

I now have a greater understanding of young people and have developed the skills to communicate with them, as well as with their teachers and communities. It is with these skills, among all that I have gained from my academic journey, that I hope to move forward into a career as a psychologist, researcher into mental health or public speaker.

Read more inspiring stories of student success here.

Posted 19 August 2021 Posted in General, My Story — Student Voice