My (non)-traditional journey through higher education

by Amy Gill, The University of Sydney

My higher education journey began twenty years ago on the opposite side of the world to where I write this blog post for ACEPHE. Mountains of college brochures addressed to me arrived in the mailbox at my foster home during my senior year of high school. This placement was in a rural part of Ohio, so we had a backyard and tossed most of them into a bonfire. I knew where I wanted to go to college, which was a small, eccentric liberal arts college just a few hours away.  

School had always been my solace, especially after I was removed from my family. Placement moves forced me to change schools five times in the ninth grade before I went to live with a family that supported my education. Despite a rocky start to high school, I was graduating on time and had been offered a wealth of scholarships, big and small. It seemed that everyone wanted to help put a kid leaving foster care through college!

Living in the dorms gave me a sense of freedom unlike the strict conditions of being in care. Unlike most of the other students on campus, I was also well versed in roommate negotiations, shared bathrooms, and dining halls. But I was still grappling with childhood trauma and depression, so my transition to campus life did not come easy. I did make great friends, including a few others who had also been in care. It gave us a bond when we otherwise had little in common. 

I originally planned to study creative writing, but I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. My teachers, caseworker and guidance counsellor were thrilled I had plans to go to college, but none had taken the time to discuss career pathways with me. My academic advisor suggested I take the maximum five years to complete a Bachelor of Arts, so I could learn a bit of everything, from political history and astronomy to pottery and fencing, and even spend a semester studying Spanish in Mexico.  

Shortly before graduation, I began planning a working holiday to the UK. With no deep attachments to anyone in the US and no real job prospects, it seemed like the perfect adventure. And it was, so much so that I decided to do it all again, but this time in Australia. I moved to Perth on a whim, and soon realised that my generalised BA degree was not attractive to many employers. I knew I wanted to work with children but had some inkling that social work would be retraumatising and stressful. So, I randomly chose a university near my house that offered a one year post-grad program to qualify as a primary school teacher.  

Once again, I wish I had someone who could have offered me career advice because there were far, far more qualified primary teachers than job vacancies at the time. I spent a few years taking intermittent relief teaching work and short-term contracts in farming and mining towns, remote Aboriginal communities, and as a music specialist in a leafy green suburb. Then I decided to do a Master of Education by research degree because it sounded like fun. That same year, I also won a scholarship to upgrade my teaching qualification to include high school Design and Technology, a subject with a teacher shortage at the time. It was very humbling to struggle so much in an educational setting. I managed to electrocute myself using an arc welder and couldn’t build a wooden stool that didn’t wobble.  

Educational research was equally challenging, but far more my style. Knowing firsthand how much educational support can make a difference to the lives of kids in care, I wrote a research proposal to explore collaboration between social workers and educators. The research took much longer than I expected, especially as I was also teaching in primary schools, tutoring, and volunteering.  

Back then I told myself I would never, ever study again. But here I am, halfway through a PhD program researching the support needs of young parents in and exiting care. I moved to Sydney and found some work as a research assistant. My supervisor encouraged me to apply for a PhD. Again, I wish someone had given me career advice because I picked the wrong program, the wrong supervisors, and was advised to address my topic from the wrong angle. That first year of my PhD was made all the more difficult by a cancer diagnosis. About a year I returned from maternity leave with a clean bill of health and decided to transfer to a new university to basically start a PhD all over again.  

It was well worth it, though. Now my research project has evolved to include additional types of data, and most importantly, the perspectives of care leavers. I feel very grateful to have met so many other care leavers in academia already. Among other things, I hope my involvement in ACEPHE might include exchanging the kinds of advice on navigating higher education and career planning that we care leavers often miss out on. 

2 thoughts on “My (non)-traditional journey through higher education

  1. Thanks so much for telling us your story, Amy, and an excellent point to raise – that career advice in addition to encouragement to go to university is needed.

    Liked by 1 person

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