A regional campus in Bega is helping students achieve their own incredible feats.
In a town with a population of fewer than 5,000 people, known globally for its cheese products, lies a regional campus where students are taking on the challenge of uni. For many people, a tertiary education is a rite of passage. It’s an opportunity to move away from home, gain independence and start building the skills to pursue a career you’re passionate about. But for some students, regional campuses are the best, and sometimes only way, to access university.
Allyse Ayling moved away from her home town of Merimbula before she finished high school to take up a jewellery apprenticeship in Narooma. But after her position was made redundant she was left with some big decisions.
“I didn’t really know what to do because I thought that was going to be my career for life,” she says. “But after moving back home my mum encouraged me to find something I was passionate about and work towards getting a qualification.”
To start her journey towards being a nurse, Allyse enrolled in Cert III in Disabilities at South Coast Careers College followed by a Nursing Pathway to Uni program that included a university preparation bridging program at UOW’s Bega campus.
“I love caring for people. Growing up I had an older brother who was very unwell, so I was always in a hospital setting. I think the nurses were major role models for me,” she says. “In a way, this is a chance for me to give back to what they did for our family.
“The course really opened my eyes,” Allyse says. “We had days at the uni where we used the labs. It was great to be taught by a university lecturer in a university setting to get a feel for what it would be like.”
The opportunity to become familiar with the UOW campus in Bega helped smooth the transition to the Bachelor of Nursing at the start of 2017. Allyse says she has found the size of the campus to be a real positive.
“Because it’s smaller, there’s really good support and a lot more one-on-one time with the lecturers,” she says. “It’s also really good to have so many support networks on the one campus. You get to meet so many other people from all the other years and they’re really helpful as well.”
Now in her second semester of the degree, Allyse has found her feet and she’s enjoying her subjects and putting her new skills to good use as a part-time disability worker for Connections Plus.
“I work with a patient who has serious medical conditions. It’s incredible to learn more about these different medical conditions and how I can use this knowledge to care for the patient better,” she says. “It’s quite amazing to be able to put what I learn into practice.”
Associate Professor Sarah O’Shea, from UOW’s School of Education, says regional campuses have an important role to play. They create opportunities to share new knowledge, develop skilled workers for jobs in regional areas and generate employment.
“Regional campuses and regional unis have a huge role to play, not only are they often sources of employment, they can also offer a focus point for community gatherings and opportunities for people to encounter and engage with new knowledge. They are a really important aspect of regional communities,” she says.
During primary school, Kayla Robbie was diagnosed with a brain tumour and had to work harder than most throughout high school to get to into university.
“It was 2008 when I was diagnosed. I had surgery and then I had radiation. I’ve been in remission for nine years. I’m just a little bit slower with some things and I lost some of my peripheral vision,” she says. “But my school – and the University – have been great with things like academic consideration and extra time in exams, which is really helpful.”
Not sure of the career path she wanted to take at the end of Year 12, Kayla chose the Bachelor of Arts (Community Culture and Environment) because she felt it would provide the most flexibility in terms of choosing subjects that matched her interests.
She is now in her final year with plans to go on and complete the Master of Teaching. This would give her the accreditation she needs to become a primary school teacher.
“I always wanted to do something that helps people and I like working with kids,” she says. “Teaching is a way that I can do both.”
Being from Eden, Kayla stays with her grandparents in Bega during the week, returning home after classes have finished for the week. Having the support of her family is a real bonus, but it’s not the only support she has found when things aren’t going smoothly
“It’s the same for everyone, probably. Every semester has its good times and bad times. Sometimes you’re on a high, keeping up with readings and it’s all going well. Other times you feel like you have so much to do and you feel like you can’t do it all,” she says.
“The great thing though is that it’s a really close-knit community at the Bega campus. You know everyone and it’s easy to make friends. It’s also really nice having small classes as well because you get more one-on-one time with the tutors.”
Professor O’Shea says Kayla’s experience is not uncommon. The transition to life as a university student is difficult enough for most, so being able to stay close to home and study can be a big benefit.
“Often at a regional campus, you’re known by sight,” Professor O’Shea says. “It’s a little community of its own, which can be very beneficial for students. They have the security of being known, if they run into difficulty, they have keen awareness of who they can speak to and where they can go for support.”
Uni wasn’t always on the cards for Jesse Edwards, who was born with a vision impairment known as Peters anomaly. The condition means he has about 5 per cent vision. With the help of electronic text books, his support worker and his guide dog, Onyx, he is studying his Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Wollongong in Bega.
“You just have to deal with the cards life throws at you and if you’re not happy with them, throw them back,” he says.
With a dream to work in Human Resources, Jesse gets up at 6am, boards a bus at Merimbula and makes his way to the Bega campus for class. To the delight of other students, he arrives with his main study buddy Onyx by his side and goes about his day.
“If you really want the degree you will do it,” he says. “It is a challenge, but it’s meant to be a challenge. If it was too easy there wouldn’t be any point going.
“You really have to treat it like you are learning a new job, you are learning how to be a successful uni student – your job is to actually learn.
“I live in Merimbula and UOW in Bega is the closest university. It is good I can study close to home, if I couldn’t do it here I probably wouldn’t do the degree at all.”
Jesse studies his degree part-time. He says being part of a small community and being organised are the key to managing the workload.
“Because it’s a smaller community on campus, you get a lot more individual attention and the staff have been really supportive,” he says. “We also have a disability liaison officer who I can go and see at any time.
“For me a lot of it comes down to being organised and knowing what you’ve got due and when. One of the things about uni is a lot of people will say its stressful and hard, but they are sometimes the people who aren’t organised.
“With a vision impairment, you have to be aware of things that will take a bit longer – so you do need to be a little bit more organised to make sure you can get it all done. You can’t leave things to the last minute.”
Having regional unis and having that opportunity to learn at a regional level is really important, so it’s important we continue to offer that choice for students.Professor Sarah O'Shea
Through her research on student experiences in regional and remote areas, Professor O’Shea says the feel of a small community and the ability to live close to home are a common positive theme among students.
While these students have chosen to study close to home, other students who have moved away for university often experience additional stressors.
“All my research really is related to student experience, and quite a number of students I’ve interviewed are from regional and remote areas,” she says.
“For regional and remote students, the biggest difference is they have such a huge movement – moving into uni is daunting for anyone, but when you have to physically move yourself there are additional stressors.
“Regional campuses are often a lot smaller, so there is an opportunity for students to get to know staff on a really personal level.
“A regional campus can give students a great taste of what uni is like in the safety of their own home town,” she says. “But lots of students crave independence, so if you study at a larger institution there is always the option to move campuses with the same institution, this is a massive opportunity.”
Professor O’Shea has recently received funding for a project on regional universities. UOW will lead the research, in conjunction with UNSW and the University of Newcastle to go to regional and rural areas and work with school students. Researchers will talk to them about the transition to university and create digital stories about what going to university means for them.
“Having regional unis and having that opportunity to learn at a regional level is really important, so it’s important we continue to offer that choice for students,” Professor O’Shea says.
This importance rings true for Jessi, Kayla and Allyse as they prove just what is achievable, right in their backyard.