Growing up in her beloved hometown of Griffith, NSW, but spending several of her schooling years in a selective boarding school in Sydney, Lily O’Donnell was in a unique position – one that highlighted the divide between rural and city students, in their ability to access higher education.
Lily watched as many of her city friends transitioned easily into tertiary studies, while her friends living regionally faced comparatively more and different barriers. Despite possessing equal abilities and work ethics, her friends from each area have followed vastly different paths.
“Many of my friends from boarding school went on to study law or medicine. From my immediate circle of eight girls at Wade High School, only one or two went to university,” Lily says.
“If you grow up in Sydney and go to a selective school, everyone in your school will go to university. It’s also likely that both of your parents went to university, and they want you to achieve that same academic success in your life.
“The culture of my regional school was much different; some people go to university, but it's not the majority. It’s more common to start working straight out of high school. When you have to move from your home to a larger, more expensive city to study, that’s going to impact your ability to access tertiary education.”
Lily has experienced the transformative nature of higher education in her own life and wants to ensure that every young person has the chance to access it.
Like many young people, Lily didn’t quite know what she wanted to do after finishing school. Travel was a predominant theme in her life growing up, so she did what she knew best, and took gap years in which she travelled extensively, and spent significant periods living in Malaysia and India.
She’d experienced the world in a way that many her age never would, so after a few years of adventure, she decided to take the plunge and settle down in Canberra to study her dream course – a Bachelor of Arts (Global Studies).
“I've always loved learning about cultural diversity and power structures, but I wanted a more academic kind of learning, one that was structured, with a qualification, and which could lead into a career, so I enrolled in the Bachelor of Global Studies,” Lily says.
“After a year, I applied to study a Bachelor of Psychology as well. They complement each other because Global Studies offers a big picture, whereas Psychology very much paints an individual experience – they balance each other out.
Now in her third year of university, Lily also volunteers as a student mentor and works as an Aspirations Agent and tutor through UC’s Equity and Participation team.
The Aspirations Agent role is all about breaking down barriers and empowering young people from regional areas with an understanding of university and what it can offer them, so they can make informed decisions about their future pathways.
The students she works with have diverse backgrounds, interests and future aspirations – it’s Lily’s job to show what a future at university could look like for them.
“University, to me, was like this kind of mystery. I remember attending my first lecture and sitting there in shock, because the lecturer was talking about topics I was so passionate about. For me, that was so transformative,” Lily says. "If we can bring students here and show them what university life is all about, they can better imagine themselves as a student.
“What I really love is when we bring the students out to campus. We take them on tours of the facilities and introduce them to different academics who run workshops on their own area of expertise, from nursing to papermaking! It’s all about showing them what university is like, which is so important for them – but also, so much fun.”
As part of their work, the Aspirations team surveys students at the beginning and end of the program to understand the impact of their work.
Students are asked to rate their understanding of university and whether they could see themselves as a university student someday.
By the end of the program, their answers have usually flipped entirely, with many students better able to envision what a life beyond high school looks like for them.
In addition to balancing her studies with her work as an Aspirations Agent, Lily has also found time to tutor a psychology student one-on-one through the Refugee transition program - an experience that she’s found incredibly rewarding.
“I worked with a student who was having some challenges academically but also needed some general motivation and support, as they’d been through various things in their personal life” Lily says.
“We met up a couple of times every week, just to go through assignments – but also to check in with how they're going.
“With that extra support, I've seen that student totally thrive. They’ve done so well and become so motivated.”
“It’s great to be a part of the Refugee transition program and help develop confidence and agency in students who are learning to navigate the university system.”
As Lily moves into her fourth and final year of study, she’s able to reflect on the journey that has been, and the lessons she’s learnt through her work – university study isn’t for everybody, but no one should be denied the opportunity just because of the postcode or country they were raised in.
“I think any student can do well at university, they just need to have the right supports in place,” Lily says.
“Education can be so transformative. In addition to what I’ve learned and the opportunities it’s provided for my future, university has made me more confident and changed my perspective —that's a chance that everyone should have access to.”
Words and photo by Kelly White