Many young people are struggling with the rising cost of living: rent, bills, groceries and transport. But imagine you’re doing it all alone, without the support of your parents or family. That’s the reality for young people who have grown up in care. And it’s a key reason so few make it into higher education. If you’re working all the hours you can just to get by, you don’t get the opportunity to study and break the cycle of poverty, irrespective of how bright you are. But a charity scholarship program is trying to change that. In this episode of The Briefing, Katrina Blowers speaks to former foster care kid Ruby about her journey to university. (Podcast description.)
Listen to the episode here, skip to 09:28 to hear Ruby’s story.
Transcript: How Ruby got into the 1% of foster care leavers who make it to uni
Host Katrina Blowers: It’s been called a national disgrace. That’s the estimate released by La Trobe uni researchers, that just 1% of kids in state care end up going on to study at university. In Australia out-of-home care (OOHC) is a statutory care arrangement for people under the age of 18 who can’t live with their birth families due to either chronic child abuse or neglect. It’s estimated 40,000 young people are living in that situation right now, and they’ve got to overcome huge social and economic barriers to get to uni, which makes that cycle of poverty really hard to break. So how do we overcome this?
Well, Ruby is a one-percenter who has, and she’s kindly agreed to share her story with us on The Briefing. Ruby, what would you like people to know about what it’s like to grow up in care? Can you share some of your story with us?
Ruby: I think it’s important people know it can be really hard being a young person in OOHC. I was bullied just for being in OOHC when I was in high school and it really isolated me, alienated me from my peers. So I think being patient and nurturing to young people in care is the best thing.
I know that some people can be cut off from their families, cut off from what they’ve known, what they’ve loved and they can feel like they don’t belong in the world anymore. They can be angry and frustrated with what they’re doing. One of the hardest things I experienced was the fact that I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to finish school, if I was going to go to uni. It was the area of unknowns, and would I even have a life that I was happy with and proud of?
KB: From the age of six, being in OOHC, you would have had to grow up so fast in ways that I can’t even wrap my head around. And then there’s that added element of just not having people around you, family members or parents who believe in you, who tell you that you can be more than you think you are. What are some of the things that you would like to share with us about how that really changed your life?
Ruby: From the age of six I’ve been in and out of OOHC. That being either kinship care (which is living with a family member) or foster care (which is living with a family that has trained to look after young people in care). One of the hardest things was that my brother and sister – many years after me – started going into OOHC as well. It wasn’t just me that I had to think about, trying to navigate life for myself, it was also them. My number one goal in life now is to make sure they don’t have the experiences I’ve had and make sure they have the best childhood they can possibly have.
Living in OOHC at such a young age – you lose the spark in your eyes, you lose the spark in yourself that brings joy to when you’re a kid. I think that’s one thing I really hate about my experience in OOHC. From a young age I lost that spark and joy that should be treasured for so many years.
I had to toughen up more than others and figure out how to stand up for myself and advocate for myself so that I was heard, and so that people would take my thoughts and feelings into consideration when making big choices, like where I would live, where I would go to school, would I be able to see family members, would I be able to do the things I love?
KB: So you’ve overcome all of these barriers – which are huge – to chase your dreams and get into uni. What happened there, how did you become that one-percenter, part of the 1% of people who do go on to tertiary study? What shifted or what was the key moment that made you believe you could do it?
Ruby: Key moment, oh that’s putting me on the spot. I can’t really think of the key moment because the thing is that I’ve always wanted to go to uni. I was always the one that even though I struggled with education, I struggled with going to school – I went to nine schools in the space of prep to high school, the amount of schools I went to is ridiculous – but I always wanted to go to uni.
I dropped out of year 10 mainstream school and I was like, nope I’m done, I’m not doing education any more, I’m done with this. And then after a couple of months I was like, what am I doing with my life? What am I going to do if I don’t get an education, if I don’t finish school what will I do?
So I re-enrolled and went to Go TAFE in Wangaratta. Then I finished my VCAL (Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning) and then I was like, I don’t have an ATAR, how do I get into uni? I moved to Ballarat to study a Certificate IV in Professional Writing and Editing but sadly that didn’t help me in my journey to become a journalist so I un-enrolled from that and went to Deakin College. I applied and got accepted within 24 hours which was really amazing. I started a Diploma of Communications majoring in journalism in February 2022. I finished it in 2023, and then I went on to study my second year of my Bachelor of Communications majoring in journalism.
The one moment that I realised I wanted to be a journalist was when I started creating a blog for my VCAL class so I could write down the fun and amazing things we were doing. At VCAL we were known as the outcasts – not even of the TAFE but the actual whole town that I lived in. It was like, if you were at VCAL this was your last resort because no other school wanted you, no other school thought you fit in, you were just an outcast. I embraced it and I made a life for myself that I’m actually really proud of.
KB: So if we’re looking at the key ingredients of what it’s going to take to break this cycle and raise the statistics beyond 1% – obviously having people who believe in you is key but also having access to funding is massive.
Ruby: One hundred per cent. Bit of backstory, young people in OOHC get support from the age of roughly 16 until the age of 21. But once you’re 21, you are cut off. Usually it’s support like Better Futures and stuff like that. They support with maybe phone credit or maybe some meal vouchers or if you’re moving maybe they might buy some furniture for you. So from 16 to 21 – that’s a really big chunk of your life – you’re getting support and then it just disappears overnight.
I didn’t even turn 21 yet when I got cut off from it, and I was like, what am I going to do with my life? I have a very basic casual job and I live off Centrelink. What am I going to do, how am I going to support myself, live by myself, go to uni every day, and live the life that I want for myself in Melbourne of all places (which is not a cheap place to live I might add).
I looked around on the internet trying to figure it out. Maybe there’s a scholarship that I’m eligible for? Due to the fact that I was doing a diploma at Deakin University, I wasn’t eligible for any of the scholarships there. I was like, what if there’s a scholarship for someone who’s been in OOHC? Surely there’s something, surely we have some support out there. And so I did a little research and I found the scholarship that I have, from the Sisters of Charity Foundation, and I was like, this is too good to be true. I put in my application and I got the scholarship.
So far it has been the most amazing, supportive Foundation and scholarship that I could have received because it gave me a chance to focus on my education in a way that allowed me to succeed. I don’t think I would actually be passing my units at uni with HDs (High Distinctions) and Distinctions if it wasn’t for having the security of a scholarship.
KB: That was Ruby. We’re going to bring in Estelle now, who’s from the Sisters of Charity Foundation, which gives care leavers like Ruby access to higher education via scholarships. Estelle, thanks for joining us, how many scholarships do you offer each year and how can anyone listening get involved?
Estelle: The number that we can offer is dependent on the number of donors who are willing to fund them basically, so the more people who can put their hands up and say they can fund a scholarship then the more scholarships we can offer.
We give up to $10,000 for young people who want to go to TAFE, so that’s $5,000 a year for up to two years, and for university we give $30,000 over the length of the degree. The more people who can help us by funding scholarships then the more we can offer.
KB: That was Estelle from the Sisters of Charity Foundation. Watch this space, I reckon we’re going to be hearing Ruby’s name a lot more in the future. She is about to begin an internship at the ABC in Melbourne, shadowing journalists on their breakfast program, what a go-getter!
About the Tertiary Scholarship Program for students with an out-of-home care background
Out-of-home care is a statutory care arrangement for children under 18 who can’t live safely at home with their birth parents. The state government becomes their legal guardian and places the child with an alternate caregiver: a foster carer, relative, or someone in their social network. They might also live in a group home under the care of paid staff, or independently in a private rental situation.
The Sisters of Charity Foundation Tertiary Scholarship Program provides financial support so recipients can afford study expenses (course fees; textbooks; technology; and attending workshops, networking events and internships) as well as the cost of living on their own with no parental support.
*This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
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