First with honour

UNSW Vice-Chancellor and President Ian Jacobs joins students to share their experiences of being the first in their families to attend university.


Mary Tran, Ateeq-ur Rahman, Ian Jacobs, Cameron Howe and Cameron Cripps-Kennedy. Photo: Nick Cubbin

Graduation ceremonies are a special time at UNSW because they remind us that finishing university is the dream of many beyond the students wearing the caps and gowns.

It is a dream shared by their families, who come from all over the world for the happy day – parents and grandparents who perhaps didn’t have the opportunity of a university education.

This was the case for UNSW’s President and Vice-Chancellor Ian Jacobs when he graduated from Cambridge University in 1980.

He was photographed with his beaming father, a shopkeeper, who saved to pay for extra tuition so that Ian and his brother could pass their exams and get into university. 


Ian Jacobs with his father at his graduation from Cambridge University in 1980. Photo: Supplied

In a special feature for the UNSW Newsroom, Professor Jacobs and four UNSW students share their experiences of being the first in their families to go to university – what it has meant for them and for their parents.

Jacobs says getting a university degree is about much more than the employment prospects that follow, and is something that should be available to everyone.

“I believe passionately that everyone should have an equal opportunity to obtain the benefits of a university education regardless of gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic background or any other factor,” he says.

“Of course, we want our graduates to achieve financial security but there is much, much more to a UNSW education than that. We are aiming to produce thoughtful, well-trained people who feel a sense of responsibility to contribute to society and improve the lives of others in whatever they do.”

As a recipient of the Ngoc Tram Nguyen Scholarship offered by UNSW Law, commerce/law student Mary Tran understands this, and intends to do work that benefits the wider community when she graduates. 

Growing up in Sydney’s south-west, Mary’s parents had encouraged her to go to university because they had fled the Vietnam War as teenagers and weren’t able to complete their education.

For Ateeq-ur Rahman, a mining engineering student, university wasn’t talked about at home, because no one there had experienced it.

He is now finishing his degree and heading to a mining job in the Hunter Valley, with the support and admiration of his father, who worked as a taxi driver to build a better life for his six children.

Read more about the journeys of “First in Family” students in a special feature on the UNSW Newsroom here.