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Students in Focus

"Empower, upskill and support young people"

Jorja Waring-Bryant is now in her final years of study with the University of Canberra. Her personal experience as a young person who had to leave behind family, friends and an established life to have the chance at a university education and her work as an Aspirations Agent at UC, have shown that “access” to education is about much more than a fund or scholarship. It’s about the empowerment of young people; instilling them with the intrinsic belief that they are capable of attaining a higher education.

In her own words, Jorja speaks to the life-altering impact of university, and its effect on the lives of students, their families and their community.  This speech was originally delivered at the 2022 Ambassadors of Change Awards, for World Access to Higher Education Day.

I am originally from Griffith, New South Wales and started a Bachelor of Exercise Physiology and Rehabilitation here at the University of Canberra in 2019, following a gap year after finishing high school. Throughout my gap year, I worked full-time to save money in preparation for moving away from home to study. I am the first in my family to attend university, and in saying that, I feel an immense sense of pride.

I feel this sense of pride because I’ve come to know that change breeds change, action breeds action and seeing parts of yourself in others can contribute so significantly to one’s self-efficacy and level of self-belief about our own potential.

When reflecting on what access to higher education has meant to me, I continuously land on the word ‘empowered’.

Quite frankly, if it wasn’t for key people in my life who instilled a sense of self-belief in me, I likely wouldn’t have found my way to university.

Like many young people from a rural area, I had absolutely no idea what to expect from university.

Thanks to my university education, I now have skills and life experiences that I otherwise wouldn’t have; higher education has given me opportunities to prove to myself that I am resilient, I am capable, and that I can be an agent of change.

I have a much better understanding of my personal values, and a passion for bringing awareness to the power of higher education.

Because of this education, I can now go back to my community and provide a service for people in the area. This will be one of the most rewarding things I do in my lifetime – giving back to the community that raised me.

This is how we build strong, functioning communities in rural Australia: Empower, upskill and support young people to pursue their passions, and hopefully one day bring their skills and knowledge back to their communities.

My passion for accessible education has flourished through my work as an Aspirations Agent within the UC Outreach and Engagement team. In this role, we work with young people living in regional areas to bring awareness to pathways to higher education.

It’s certainly not the ‘salesperson’ type of work that many expect from a visit from a university. In practice, this translates to workshops to build personal skills, workshops focused on careers across a range of areas, from health, to engineering, to arts and design and everything in between, or providing young people with immersive experiences of what higher education might look like.

Personally, I’ve seen how building a foundation level of awareness and self-efficacy is a precursor to the ability to access higher education. I’ve seen first-hand the extraordinary impact of this team over the last couple of years.

More often than not, it’s a young person’s eyes lighting up as they learn about exciting careers they previously knew nothing about, or the comments explaining their new-found openness to the idea of higher education, that fills my cup the most.

As a student and soon-to-be health practitioner back in my hometown, what I’ve taken from my time as an Aspirations Agent, is that you don’t necessarily need to be a teacher, or work in a school environment to advocate for and bring awareness to higher education. A lot of the time, being a role model for young people and instilling self-belief in them is enough to have a profound impact on someone’s perception of their capability to engage in higher education.

As my time as a student and Agent comes to an end, I will continue to work to empower young people by striving to be a role model.

I would like to thank the people working in this space. Thank you for your wonderful work towards breaking down barriers to higher education. Continue being the amazing people that you are, and please do not underestimate the impact of a young person feeling empowered, as they navigate their path to higher education.

Speech by Jorja Waring-Bryant, republished with permission. Story compiled by Kelly White. Photo by Tyler Cherry.

The University of Canberra is committed to equity and ensuring that every student has the support they need to thrive. To learn more about the support services available, visit the UC website.