Students break the family mould
Imagine being the first member of your family to ever attend university, or growing up without the encouragement to pursue study beyond high school.
An innovative University of Adelaide program is helping to inspire young South Australians to become the first in their family to undertake tertiary study.
The First Generation Program commenced in 2009 with State Government funding and is breaking down some of the barriers and myths of university life.
It has engaged more than 120 students in Years 9-11, from 15 South Australian schools with low student progression rates onto university.
The program supports students from a variety of backgrounds, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, regional or remote students, students from non-English speaking backgrounds and students from low socio-economic backgrounds.
The program aims to offer everybody the opportunity to fulfil their potential, regardless of where they come from. Selection into the program is managed by the participating school after consultation with the program manager and parent or guardian, and is based on a student's academic potential and desire to study at university.
Despite being in its infancy, the program has so far received an overwhelming response from participating students, with more than 65% saying that they are more likely to go to university as a result of taking part.
Over several days, students are brought onto the University's North Terrace Campus - a first for most - for a taste of university life and study. They take part in faculty-run and career-focused activities, spend time with student mentors and role models from similar backgrounds, form social and support networks, and overcome some of their misconceptions about university.
According to the University's First Generation program coordinator Jen Hill, this experience allows students to make informed decisions about their future, and to consider university as a relevant and achievable option.
"Students are introduced to the range of support services available on campus," Jen said.
"Study and life skills sessions are offered, along with financial, employment and accommodation support, health and library services. Academic and personal support and counselling are all available for students to access at the University of Adelaide.
"In addition, role modelling and mentoring relationships, friendships with other students and links with schools and parents are formed during the program and developed throughout the rest of the students' schooling.
"Equity outreach programs, like the First Generation program, bring long-term benefits to not only participating students and their families, but to communities, the University and the broader economy by encouraging more academically-talented students to participate in higher education and move on to graduate level employment," Jen said.
With the initial group of First Generation program students expected to finish Year 12 in 2011, many will begin enrolling at the University of Adelaide from 2012.
"Feedback from participating school staff has been overwhelmingly positive," Jen said.
"We hope the success of the program will see the continued support of the State Government after funding ceases at the end of 2010.
"In my experience, it is often first generation students who go on to do more with their tertiary opportunities, who have a greater desire to achieve and `give back' by assisting others from disadvantaged backgrounds and advocating the benefits of higher education."
Story Connie Dutton
Journalist, psychologist, lawyer and computer game designer were all career aspirations entertained by Joanne O'Connor. She knew these career paths meant achieving a university degree, and thanks in part to support and encouragement from her family, Joanne is making her dream a reality as a first generation tertiary student.
Currently completing her third year of a Bachelor of Psychological Science, Joanne acknowledges the benefits of hands-on experience and a clear pathway to university.
"My mum recognised my interest in university from a young age and encouraged me to apply for a scholarship to a school that provided a solid pathway to tertiary education. I was lucky because it was part of my school's culture to progress to university and I was given plenty of exposure to it through my teachers and support staff," she said.
As a student mentor for the First Generation program, Joanne sees first-hand how the program is meeting the needs of potential students by providing role models with whom students can interact and by presenting opportunities to familiarise themselves with the university campus while still in high school.
"I think it's really important to have people around you who have been through university so it doesn't seem like such an obscure experience. The First Generation program meets this need as the program addresses a gap for students when they don't have family members to chat to about university, or when they just haven't had other opportunities to visit," she said.
"I know that there are so many high school students who still see a university education as a distant, unattainable dream. Alternatively, they might see it as a cold, unwelcoming place for anyone other than the privileged elite. By participating in these programs, students can hopefully see that university is neither of these things and that they can work towards achieving whatever they want."
Flexibility to tailor a degree program to suit his interests was one of the surprising benefits that Renato Vozzo discovered when he began studying at the University of Adelaide as a first generation student.
Academically-minded and with a desire for a job title that "sounded cool", Renato did not feel completely confident about applying to study at university, despite receiving some support from his high school.
"In high school I felt that I had to make a decision then and there about what I wanted to do with my life and that I needed to achieve the results in order to start on that pathway," he said.
"Even in my final year of high school I was constantly changing my mind about what I wanted to study."
After completing two years of a Science degree, Renato decided it wasn't for him, so he began a Bachelor of Arts, which allowed him to pursue his interests in the Italian language and philosophy.
Through his involvement as a student ambassador in the First Generation Program, Renato is now helping other young people see that university offers the flexibility to be in control of your own learning and offers many choices about careers and lifestyle.
"I think it's important for them to know that if you're not 100% sure about the career path you want to take, that's fine. University is great because it gives you a chance to study things that aren't available at high school, you can be flexible about whether you study full-time or part-time, and you can change your mind about which direction you take, all with support, along the way."