Scholarships at the University of Sydney give more than just financial support. They instil confidence and a drive to succeed. For these five students, donor-funded scholarships changed everything.
When Maddison Eveleigh was 13, she started working at her local bakery to save money to go to university. She longed to study at the University of Sydney, but it felt like a daunting ambition. No-one in her family had ever been to university, and she would need to move to the city from her home in Moruya, on the NSW south coast.
“In country towns, university is not always the expected path and it can be very difficult to afford,” she says.
She studied hard, hoping to get the results she needed to study science, but even with her savings and some financial help from her family, she knew she wouldn’t have enough to cover rent and living expenses in Sydney. Her only hope was a scholarship. She applied for the University of Sydney Early Offer Year 12 Scholarship, a donor‑supported scheme for students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds or low socioeconomic schools.
Eveleigh got into her chosen course and won the scholarship. “When I got it, I immediately felt like the University of Sydney wanted me as a student,” she says. “They can see the difference between coming from a rural or a city school.”
She is now in her second year, majoring in immunology, pathology and applied medical science. She plans to go on to study medicine, with a rural placement and a focus on emergency medicine.
“The scholarship changed everything – 100 percent. I wouldn’t have been able to come here without it.”
In country towns, university is not always the expected path and it can be very difficult to afford.
John Won was working in the accounts department of an aged care facility when he found himself dreaming of a career in nursing. Drawn to the day-to-day action of his frontline colleagues’ work, he left his desk and calculator behind to retrain as a nurse specialising in emergency care.
“I love the pace and the excitement,” says Won, who completed his Master of Emergency Nursing with the help of a Susan Wakil Scholarship. “When people are having their absolute worst day, we are there to help them out.”
With three school-aged children and a partner with her own career, Won’s decision to return to study involved weighing up significant costs in terms of money and time. “I would be preparing meals, getting the kids to bed and then pulling out the laptop to work through the content. It was hard.”
The scholarship eased the burden significantly. The Susan and Isaac Wakil Foundation is among the University’s greatest supporters, donating $10.8 million in 2015 to fund 12 nursing scholarships annually. The Wakils also gave $35 million in 2016 – the largest gift ever received by the University – to build a new facility to house the health and medical disciplines.
For Won, the scholarship allowed him to focus on his studies, but also provided a confidence boost. “To be recognised by a scholarship was a real rubber stamp for me. It made me feel I was heading in the right direction.”
It’s not uncommon for the children of teachers to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Jessica Zanuttini did just that. “My mum is a teacher and she is a very passionate educator, so I knew there was really nowhere else that I wanted to be,” she says.
But that decision proved only the first step. After earning her Bachelor of Education (Primary), she found herself drawn to students with special education needs, particularly those on the autism spectrum.
“I was always trying to do more to help those who needed additional support,” she says. “So I ended up taking more courses in special and inclusive education in the last year of my degree. From there, I went into the field, teaching part time in a support unit, and working towards a PhD.”
The research demands of her PhD were such that she felt compelled to give up her job. Unemployed for nearly six months, she was afraid her PhD was in peril. “I felt quite pressured to speed up my data collection just so I could get back to earning an income,” she says.
She applied for a scholarship funded by a $1 million bequest from the late Raymond L Debus, a Sydney alumnus who taught and researched in educational psychology at the University from 1958 to 1996. His bequest helps honours students or graduates undertake research in the field of education.
“I was very grateful,” Zanuttini says. “It helped remind me that what I was doing was important, and gave me the motivation to keep going.”
She now lectures at the University. “I want to pass on my passion for special and inclusive education to pre-service teachers,” she says. “I hope to influence others and inspire them.”
Four years ago, when Victor Shahen and his family immigrated to Australia from Israel, his dream was to study medicine. It seemed a remote prospect.
His parents struggled to find jobs in their new country, so he had to work to help keep the family afloat. He achieved the results he needed to make it into the University’s Bachelor of Medical Science in 2016, but worried that the time spent out of the workforce would leave his family struggling.
Help arrived in the form of a series of merit-based scholarships: the Sydney Scholars Award, the Denison Research Scholarship and the Charles Perkins Centre Summer Research Scholarship. He was able to funnel some of the scholarship money back to his family, and did so well in his studies that in second year, he was accepted into the prestigious Talented Students Program, which gave him the opportunity to work on a research project in neuroscience.
“My hope is that I become a cardiothoracic surgeon,” he says. “I really want to be where all the action is and help people as well.”
Recently, he completed an eight-week research stint, supported by the Charles Perkins Centre Summer Research Scholarship. This scholarship – funded by donations – allows high-achieving students to pursue their own idea for a research project. Shahen worked with diabetes researcher Dr Melkam Kebede on a project investigating insulin and its secretion.
Scholarships have helped Shahen shine. “Receiving such support has motivated me to put even more effort in," he says. "I’ve been very, very fortunate.”
Less than three months after she completed her degree, Rachel Williams started work as an oral health therapist in Inverell, not far from her hometown of Glen Innes. Williams is a Ngemba woman working at the Armajun Aboriginal Health Service, where her skills and connection to the community are crucial in providing dental care for local Aboriginal people.
For many of the people she treats, the nearest specialists are a two‑and-a-half hour drive away. “So we do as much as we can here, rather than just referring it on to someone else.”
Four years ago, Williams received the Rotary Aboriginal Oral Health Scholarship. The scholarship was created in partnership with the University’s Poche Centre for Indigenous Health, established thanks to a $10 million donation from Greg Poche and Kay Van Norton Poche. It helped her to achieve certificate qualifications as a dental assistant. Afterwards, she began a dental assistant traineeship in Inverell, but dreamed of taking her studies further with a Bachelor of Oral Health.
Again, a scholarship provided crucial support. She completed the degree with support from the Dr Lawrence F Smith Scholarship for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Students in Dentistry. "Moving so far from my family and friends, leaving my job and relocating to Sydney was challenging," she says. "The scholarship was invaluable in helping me adapt.
“Being able to help people in my community, to help close the health gap for Aboriginal people in rural areas, it’s something I have always wanted to do.”
On 17 September, we celebrate University donors with Thank You Day. See how our donors are changing the world.