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My Story – Student Voice: Tahlia Danks

Tahlia Danks grew up in a low socioeconomic suburb in Sydney’s south west, and is the first in her family to attend university, completing her Bachelor of Communication (Public Communication) majoring in Public Relations at the University of Technology Sydney in 2016. Tahlia was a part of the University of Technology Sydney’s Widening Participation Strategy program U@Uni in 2012. She is currently studying her honours degree with research in behavioural economics, and works in marketing automation for UTS’ Marketing and Communication Unit.

Tahlia addressed the 2017 Universities Australia Conference about her personal experience of access and equity programs:

When I was asked to speak at today’s conference, it was suggested that I speak of my personal experience of access and equity programs, and why I think these are important. And immediately, I thought of a quote:

“I want to go to university one day and make my parents proud, because they didn’t get the chance to go. But I’m scared that I won’t be accepted, and if I am, that I won’t fit in.”

I am 20 years of age, and have completed my Bachelor of Communication, majoring in Public Relations, at the University of Technology, Sydney. Today, I work for UTS’ Marketing and Communication Unit as a Special Projects Coordinator (Marketing Automation), where I ensure the successful rollout of marketing automation activities university-wide, after having previously holding a position within the UTS Equity and Diversity Unit. And in a matter of weeks will begin my honours research into behavioural economics.

By this standard, I have the perfect start to adulthood – filled with the desire to have a successful career, and with aspirations to pursue further study. Yet the quote that I just read out is something that I wrote at 17 years of age.

I grew up in a troubled suburb in Sydney’s south west and attended my local high school – a low socioeconomic public school that did not have the resources to adequately invest in students who wished to pursue higher education, or even the capacity to run the HSC subjects required to facilitate the learning that may have led to a desire to do so.

With almost 80 per cent of students attending our school coming from non-English speaking backgrounds, and many of these being refugees, these lack of resources, as well as an absence of a school careers advisor, greatly affected the way we viewed higher education. To us, higher education often seemed only accessible to the wealthy, or to those who lived within proximity to the CBD.

This view was also exemplified by the fact that almost all students, including myself, lacked guidance in our homes about higher education, being the first in our family to get the opportunity to attend university.

I would like to note that many of us had a desire to attend university, but a combination of the aforesaid reasons saw students who were more than capable of entering higher education and pursuing their dream jobs fall through the cracks. And as much as I would like to think that it was my 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.

Just to provide some background, U@Uni is a key component of the UTS Widening Participation Strategy (WPS), which, funded by 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 under-represented 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 a similar situation to myself, but it also allowed me to come back on campus for a range of follow-up workshops and events that followed us throughout the rest of our schooling, providing me with the information about higher education that I simply couldn’t receive at school or home.

It is these multiple touch points with the university throughout my senior schooling that ensured 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 which point, I was accepted into UTS and hired by the Equity and Diversity Unit as an Equity Ambassador.

My role an Equity Ambassador provided me with the opportunity to network with other staff at the university, leading to employment opportunities within my chosen field, as well as ensured that I had an income whilst I studied my degree. But more importantly, it meant that I got a chance to work on the very same programs that I had benefit 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 I grew up in.

Only last week, I was walking to my office when a young man ran up to me and gave me an all-encompassing hug, and exclaimed, “I’m here – I made it! Thank you for everything, Miss! See you around!” It was one of my students that I had been tutoring through the HSC Tutorial Scheme throughout his senior schooling. Two years ago, he was worried that he was going to have to work as a carpenter with his father because he didn’t think he would make it into university, and now here he was at O-Week.

The cyclical nature of my higher education journey, having been a participant in the U@Uni Program and then coordinating the program has meant that I am able to see the ways in which HEPPP has improved the access to, and participation of low socioeconomic students like myself in ways that a lot of people cannot. And now, as a permanent member of the UTS community, I get the privilege of watching widening participation and equity grow to become a part of our strategic objectives, encouraging us to be what we always should have been – an institution for public good.

So, from both a student and staff perspective, it is now more important than ever to continue driving equity in higher education. But in doing so, we must recognise that every student’s story is different. It is our job as educators, professional staff, and government officials, to recognise the uniqueness of each student, and not patronise them, but instead, give them the best possible chance of having a bright future.

And in order to achieve this generational change that our Australian universities so desperately need, we not only require the cooperation and dedication of all of us here today, but we also require the help of HEPPP funding – the driving factor in the success of our outreach programs, so that more individuals receive the opportunities that I was so fortunate to have.

Read more about the U@Uni Program here.

Posted 10 March 2017 Posted in General, Low SES, My Story