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Students in Focus

Choosing an education: How Seku Drame’s life journey led him to UC

Seku Drame arrived in the ACT with $500 in his pocket and dreams of getting an education. Canberra was a long way from his birth place but exactly what he was looking for.

“I tell people: ‘I’ve never been to Liberia… but I was born there’.”

Seku’s family left in the midst of a long civil war, before he can remember. He grew up in neighbouring Guinea, but his family never stayed in the same city for long.

When he was 15, Seku and his family touched down in Australia and he was able to go to school for the first time.

“My father was very religious and very protective of me, to the point that he did not want to send me to school because he thought I might be exposed to untoward influences and ‘corrupted’,” Seku says.

“I became very rebellious, I wanted to be going to school like everyone else. So, when we came to Australia, I was finally like, I’m going to school.”

The family settled in Newcastle, where Seku was placed in the local public high school. He says the people were welcoming, which eased an otherwise complicated transition, and he had a class with other students for whom English was an additional language.

“It was kind of like being on a different planet and then, to make things more complicated, I didn’t know English at the time,” Seku says.

“It was really funny because I did not understand anything. But we all learned to communicate.

In the introductory English class, we had a number of people from the Sudanese community, a few Chinese students and a Japanese student. To this day, I’m friends with all of them.

Although he started learning it later in life, Seku was determined to master English. While the more common approach for beginners is to start with simple books, as they build their grasp of the language, Seku was drawn to STEM topics and wanted to learn more.

“Learning English was hard, but I was really eager,” he says.

“I developed a habit of reading, so that’s where I learned most of my English. My teacher would always tell me, ‘you have to start with a children’s book’. But I would always go and grab something to do with astrophysics or finance, then sweat over trying to read it and give myself a headache.”

Man sitting at an outdoor table with plants behind

Seku had always known he wanted to study at university. By the time he finished high school, he had basic reading and writing skills. While an incredible achievement for someone who had heard the language for the first time just three years before, he was told it wouldn’t be enough.

“I could hardly read or write but I still wanted to go to university. Everyone was telling me to forget about it. Just do something easy.”

He ignored their doubts and, after being accepted to study physics, enrolled at his local university.

Seku worked at a restaurant to support himself. He didn’t have a car, and the walk to work took three hours. The exhaustion became overwhelming, and he ended up leaving university. But he didn’t give up.

“I was failing my classes – I was way too tired. I was so depressed because I didn’t have family to support me. Education is not something that is encouraged by my family,” Seku says. “I knew that choosing this journey, I would have to walk alone.”

Seku decided to make a change.

“My philosophy is that if you want to do something, you need an environment that is conducive to that kind of thing,” Seku says.

“I came to Canberra for a visit, and it was quiet, I liked the atmosphere. I decided, this was the environment I needed. I moved here alone, with $500 in my pocket.”

Seku lived in a hostel for the first few weeks but his money quickly dwindled and he ended up sleeping in his car in the middle of his first winter in Canberra.

I always have a lot of empathy for homeless people. I had never experienced something like that before. That was the first time I’d ever felt cold to my bones.

After a few weeks, he was able to pick up a landscaping job, and worked for 12 hours a day before applying to work at the local supermarket.

Over the next year, he worked at Woolies and completed a Year 12 course at the Canberra Institute of Technology (CIT).

Now, in 2024, Seku is in his second year of study for a double degree – a Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) and Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Canberra (UC). In January, he became an Australian citizen, and he’s saved up enough money that he hopes to buy a home soon.

With his first years of study being a steep learning curve, Seku has developed helpful strategies and found a good flow between work and study. Compartmentalisation has helped.

“Focus on one thing at a time. Dedicate yourself fully to each thing. That’s the strategy I’ve developed that’s helped the most,” Seku says.

“UC has also helped tremendously, the Equity and Participation team are always checking on me at an individual level and offering any services they can.

“I always wanted an education. I feel like to be the best person you can be, and to contribute to society, you need a skill that you can offer. To me, university is that pathway.”

Story by Kelly White, photos by Liam Budge.

This article was first published on The RiotACT on 20 June 2024.

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