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When a chance is all it takes

The Age

Tuesday February 22, 2011

Denise Ryan

Scholarships that pay high school costs are easing disadvantaged students into tertiary study, writes Denise Ryan. JAMILLA Aaden had no idea what a graphics calculator was, where to get one or how she would pay for it. But the then year 11 student did know that without one she would fail mathematics."I was behind in the work and struggling because I was new to this country," she says.Fortunately a teacher recognised that the Somalian refugee needed assistance and helped her apply for a scholarship through the not-for-profit organisation Western Chances.Thanks to this financial support, Ms Aaden says she was able to complete school in 2005, go on to study at the University of Melbourne and is now working as a dental hygienist.Julia Truong was similarly struggling to pay for her school uniform and textbooks. The then year 11 student at Gilmore Girls College in Footscray worked as much as she could but it wasn't enough. "There was so much going on," she says, "what with school and working on weekends to pay fees, that I became really stressed."She was relieved when a teacher noticed and encouraged her to apply for a scholarship through the same scheme. She says she couldn't have stayed at school, let alone have won entry into her theatre production course at the Victorian College of the Arts, without it."The course materials costs were very high, especially in year 12 when I studied design and technology and needed fabrics for garments," she says.The number of Victorian students from low socio-economic backgrounds going to university has risen 8 per cent this year. Educators believe helping targeted students to pay high-school costs is an important factor behind this increase.Western Chances is one of several organisations that aim to help young people at a critical time. Founded in 2003 by Terry Bracks, a former school teacher and wife of former Victorian premier Steve Bracks, it helps promising, needy students in Melbourne's western suburbs to proceed to tertiary study or work.Western Chances chief executive Rhyll Dorrington says 400 scholarships, averaging $1000 each, were given this year to students with a clearly identifiable talent or pathway. This can range from wanting to become a doctor to working as a motor mechanic or in hospitality.Similar, but mostly smaller, schemes operate in other parts of Victoria. South-Eastern Chances and Foundation Boroondara both offer about 30 scholarships each year.These scholarship programs differ from Learning for Life, an education sponsorship and support program run by the Smith Family, which aims to assist all students from disadvantaged backgrounds.Despite its tough selection criteria, Western Chances cannot meet demand, with 600 students applying for the 400 scholarships. While it has many business partners, Ms Bracks says it has become more difficult to secure sponsorship since the global financial crisis. "Corporates have reassessed where they give money and philanthropy has dived too," she says.Universities remain strong supporters as they recognise that such schemes will help them meet the national target of 20 per cent of students coming from low socio-economic backgrounds by 2020, a figure set by the Bradley review of higher education in 2008.Bert van Halen, an education lecturer at Victoria University, says Western Chances has had "phenomenal" success in identifying talented students who need help to stay at school. Victoria University offers three degree scholarships to its students each year.Professor Stephen Lamb, of Melbourne University's Graduate School of Education, says more schemes are needed. "There are so many students that need this support to pay for costs, particularly in the regions," he says.Ms Bracks says scholarships mostly go to students in years 10 to 12 who need help to pay for textbooks, travel costs, laptops or extra English language tuition. "One young dancer needed help to pay for ballet shoes. A swimmer needed several pairs of bathers."Her interest in such students dates back to her teaching days. "It was frustrating to see someone with talent, potential and passion face barriers. We are taking some of the barriers away. It is a hand up not a hand out. It is also not just about money. It is about helping to build self esteem."To offer more scholarships for VET and VCAL study, Western Chances is working with the Mick Young Scholarship Trust, a national scheme founded in 1997, a year after the death of the federal Labor cabinet minister. This scheme also helps motivated students from financially disadvantaged households to undertake tertiary study. Each scheme has provided more than 2000 scholarships.Professor Lamb says he is also a fan of the Smith Family's Learning for Life program as it has also had tangible success in getting disadvantaged young people into tertiary study.Smith Family general manager Heather Le Roy says 538 of its sponsored students undertook tertiary study in 2010 compared to 173 in 2006. "This will continue to grow as today's sponsored students move through school," she says.Companies and individuals have sponsored 7672 children this year, with sponsorships costing $468 a year at primary school, $708 at senior secondary school and $3000 at tertiary level.Ms Le Roy says sponsored students also gain access to homework clubs, mentors and other support programs in a "17-year journey" with the family, school and tertiary institution.Western Chances also offers extra support such as Links, a work-experience program. Broden Borg, now the deputy mayor of Melton shire, says the month he spent working at Western Water helped him to make contacts, which led to a job, study at Victoria and Swinburne universities and more recently a life in local politics."I'm opportunistic. I thought I'd give it a go and I haven't looked back," he says.Students can also gain access to affordable computers. Mr Borg's mother died when he was young so he lived with his grandparents, who were pensioners. Unlike most of his classmates at Melton Secondary College, he didn't have a computer at home so used one in the school library.It was only after he got his own laptop thanks to a scholarship that he realised what he had missed out on. "If you don't have it, you make do. But once I had the equipment, it boosted my marks."Western Chances and the Smith Family buy laptops from Infoxchange Australia, a company that specialises in providing technology to disadvantaged people.Founding executive director Andrew Mahar says his not-for-profit organisation can provide refurbished laptops for around $150 through its Green PC program. He trains long-term unemployed people to refurbish computers that have been donated by companies and government agencies.When he started his company 24 years ago, he was working with homeless people in inner Melbourne. He says he realised then that access to technology should be available to everyone, and has since distributed 33,000 computers."Working with organisations like Western Chances and the Smith Family, we can make a real difference to students' lives."

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