Growing up in North London, UNSW President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Jacobs was more interested in football than university.
His ambition was to play for England or Arsenal and score the winning goal in the World Cup Final.
Ian Jacobs and his father ... at Cambridge University
“I quickly realised that was not going to happen,” he says with a wry smile.
Jacobs’ parents, Shirley and Sidney, had limited opportunity to further their own education, and were keen for Jacobs and his brother to do well at school. They ran a small chain of retail chemists after Sidney had worked in his own father's factory in the East End.
“It was a different era when far fewer people expected to go or had the opportunity to go to university,” he says.
They made sure, by paying for extra tuition, that Jacobs and his younger brother Lawrence passed their exams to get into Haberdashers Askes, a school where going to university was an expectation.
A summer holiday stop-off in Cambridge also helped ignite a desire to attend university.
“At the time, I had just read a comic biography of Winston Churchill, he was a hero and the Cambridge University college we visited was Churchill college,” Jacobs remembers.
“I was impressed and excited by what I saw and heard. I think that left me with a wish to go to university in general and Cambridge, in particular.”
In deciding what to study, Jacobs chose medicine because he wanted a career that offered an opportunity to improve lives.
It was a time when Oxford and Cambridge were changing from being privileged institutions fed through elite private schools such as Eton and Harrow, to broadening their access.
There was something intimidating about not being from that background, but Jacobs applied for Cambridge in any case.
Going to university, particularly one as highly regarded as Cambridge, was a life-changing experience.
These opportunities have included further training in obstetrics and gynaecology at Cambridge, decades-long research into ovarian cancer and attaining the position of Dean of Medicine at University College London and then the University of Manchester.
From being the first person in his family to attend a university, Jacobs eventually became the leader of a university.
“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.
“Where young people do not have that opportunity because of home circumstances, UNSW is determined to reach out to them and encourage them.
“We are doing that through ventures like ASPIRE working with school children in disadvantaged areas at a young age, and by reviewing our admission criteria to try and allow for differences in school educational opportunities.
“We still have a long way to go but it is my expectation that by 2025, domestic admissions to and graduations from UNSW will reflect the demographics of NSW. That is a key pillar of our 2025 Strategy.”
Jacobs was back in the UK recently, in central London, where his youngest son will soon start a Masters at London School of Economics.
He reflected on the fact that 40 years ago, none of his family had been to university.
“My degree has played a key role in anything I have achieved since then and now all three of my children have had the start in life that a university education provides,” he says.
“My parents had intense pride that both of their sons went to university and they still feel it so many years later. They have loved seeing us have opportunities and careers they could only dream of. Their pleasure in celebrating our success has been a great joy.”
Mary Tran, 20
Bachelor of Commerce, Bachelor of Law
Mary Tran’s parents have always been keen for her to study hard and attend university. Mai and Van fled the Vietnam war as teenagers, and didn’t have the chance to complete their own education.
Mary Tran with her parents Mai and Van, who fled Vietnam as teenagers.
“My dad came by boat. He initially went to Malaysia and stayed in a refugee camp there, and then came to Australia. Luckily their boat was pretty big so they survived the waves,” Mary says.
Mary, an only child, grew up in Canley Vale in Sydney’s south-western suburbs and attended Canley Vale High School, a non-selective public school. Her dad is a process worker at BlueScope Steel and her mum worked at a bakery store in Penrith when she was younger.
“My parents had to work hard – physical labour, and they didn’t want my life to be like theirs. I think that’s the main reason why they encouraged me to study and go to university,” Mary says.
At high school, Mary enjoyed studying commerce, which included the topic ‘law and society’ and an excursion to the NSW Supreme Court in year 10.
Mary Tran with her father at UNSW.
“I found that trip really inspiring. The staff at Canley Vale taught us not only about academic pursuits, but also about values and what kind of person we should be,” she says.
After completing her HSC, Mary applied for a combined Commerce and Law degree at UNSW and was invited by then Dean of Law David Dixon to apply for the Ngoc Tram Nguyen Scholarship.
Ngoc Tram Nguyen, a refugee from Vietnam who planned to study Law at UNSW, believed in the transformative power of education. She died before she could realise her dream, and the scholarship is named in her honour.
“I was really happy when I found out I had been awarded the scholarship because I really wanted to go to UNSW – I was jumping up and down, and Mum and Dad were really proud,” Mary says.
Mary Tran is studying Commerce and Law at UNSW
“That was also Ngoc Tram Nguyen’s dream, to help others less fortunate, so I really want to work hard and use my law degree to make my mum’s wishes and Tram’s dream come true.
“I’ve been back to Vietnam and I have seen many children who don’t have the opportunity to go to school. I’ve had that opportunity and I want to make the most of it.”
Cameron Howe, 20
Bachelor of Commerce (majoring in Taxation)
“Occasionally I’ll be walking around campus and I’ll think to myself isn’t it amazing that a kid from a housing commission ended up here?” Cameron Howe says of his new life at UNSW.
A Nura Gili Indigenous Program gave Cameron Howe entry to his commerce degree at UNSW.
He says his mother, a TAFE-trained nurse, and his father, a school caretaker, always told him he was capable of anything but he didn’t think he was “smart enough” to enrol at university.
“My last few years at high school were a jumbled mess – I prioritised shifts at the local McDonald's over school work,” he says of his teenage years in Mudgee.
But an unexpected visit to his high school from UNSW’s Nura Gili Indigenous Programs Unit gave him a clear sense of direction. He enrolled in a three-week intensive Commerce pre-program over the summer which gave him entry into his degree.
“I learnt that there are different pathways to university,” says the 20-year old, who is now majoring in Taxation.
Cameron Howe, with his mother and stepfather, went to high school in Mudgee, and didn't believe he was "smart enough" for university.
He says he was speechless when he was told he was successful.
“I was moving my mouth and nothing was coming out and I started tearing up.
A Wiradjuri man, and now tutor at Nura Gili, Howe says he feels a responsibility to shift negative perceptions of Indigenous people and their capabilities.
Cameron Howe is interning at Ernst & Young, and majoring in taxation.
“There’s an underlying prejudice in society that Indigenous people aren’t academically-minded. I’m here to prove that I’m as smart and capable as everyone else.”
Howe is supported by a Vice-Chancellor's Equity Scholarship and is currently interning at Ernst & Young, one of the largest audit and consulting firms in the world.
“Most people hear the word ‘taxation’ and can’t think of anything more boring but I love it. It's more complex than just punching numbers into a calculator.”
Howe says his parents are immensely proud of his achievements: “They constantly tell people I’m studying at UNSW and they’re looking forward to some free tax advice when I graduate.”
Cameron Cripps-Kennedy, 27
Bachelor of Fine Arts (majoring in graphic design)
Cameron never considered going to university because she assumed it would be a “nightmarish extension” of high school.
“My reports were like, ‘Cameron is intelligent but gets easily distracted’. Looking back on it I was just bored,” she says.
Growing up in Cabramatta, Cameron’s family unit was her mother, sister and grandmother. Half way through high school, her world turned upside down when her Nan died.
“That really ramped up my sense of disillusionment and school went right out the window. I thought ‘what’s the point in studying’?”
Leaving high school before she finished Year 12, Cameron went to work at Wendy’s and McDonald’s where she “sat in the drive-through booth and put burgers on trays” and saved enough money for a holiday in Thailand, where she discovered her passion for photography.
“Suddenly, I had a focus. I decided I wanted to become a travel photographer and work for National Geographic. That was my dream.”
As soon as she turned 21, she enrolled at Charles Sturt University as a mature-age student to study photography, and after securing a scholarship, spent six months on exchange at Humboldt State University in California, an experience she says broadened her horizons “beyond belief”.
Returning to Australia, Cameron graduated with an associate degree in photography but her academic career was about to take another twist.
“I decided to enrol at UNSW to study creative writing. I thought I could work as a writer and photographer … well that was the plan.”
At the beginning of her creative writing degree, Cameron started designing promotional material for the UNSW Arts Society and Arc@UNSW, using her graphic design, writing and photography skills.
“It reminded me how much I missed graphic design, which I’d studied in my first degree, so I changed paths again and switched to a Bachelor of Fine Arts majoring in graphic design.
Like many students, Cameron has struggled to make ends meet during her studies. Growing up in a single-parent household with little money, she says she only realised what opportunities she’d missed out on when she started university.
“We were recently asked in a tutorial what circumstances can lead to a household income getting reduced to $40,000 and I was the only one in a class of 50 who could respond. I was really shocked that most of my peers had never been exposed to financial insecurity.”
Because of her experiences, Cameron volunteered as a UNSW ASPIRE Ambassador to help encourage high-school students from low-SES backgrounds to consider university.
“Knowing that there are kids in a similar position as me and being able to educate them about their options is a great feeling.
“UNSW has made me socially and politically engaged and has really helped me understand how I can use my strengths to affect change.”
Ateeq-ur Rahman, 24
Bachelor of Mining Engineering
When Ateeq stepped off the plane from Pakistan as an 18-year-old he knew little about Australia and didn’t speak English.
“I imagined Australia would be like all the American movies I’d watched – all I knew was that there would be more freedom,” he says, referring to the often harsh political and cultural restrictions in Pakistan.
Ateeq grew up on his family’s wheat and tobacco farm in Pakistan’s rural Swabi province. His father, Shafi-ur Rahman, had left the farm when Ateeq was a child to build a better life for the family in Sydney.
Eight years later, they were reunited.
“Dad worked hard in utility stores and as a taxi driver and sacrificed watching his six children grow up. It was a tough decision for him but it worked out in the end.”
Only one semester after enrolling at Holroyd High School, Ateeq was speaking fluent English and excelling at school, receiving the 2012 Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute Science Award in Year 11, and completing Year 12 with the second-highest ATAR in the school.
He also took part in UNSW’s ASPIRE program and attended ‘taster’ days on campus. The program aims to inspire students from low socio-economic backgrounds to consider higher education.
"Without ASPIRE, I wouldn’t have seen it as an option.”
Now, as an ASPIRE Ambassador, Ateeq is returning the favour by mentoring students.
“I offer them support, particularly students from an immigrant or refugee background. I know they can relate to my story.”
He says his father tried to encourage him to study medicine. “In Pakistan, everyone wants their child to become a doctor – it’s seen as a great honour – but I followed my heart and enrolled in Mining Engineering so that I could balance my interests in maths and science.”
Ateeq lights up when he talks about his degree. “I love converting a piece of rock into a precious metal and then seeing how that contributes to the economy,” he says.
When he finishes his degree at the end of 2017, Ateeq will head straight to the Hunter Valley to work with Glencore Australia.
“When I chose engineering over medicine I promised my father I would work hard, pay my fees and graduate. When I ask Dad, ‘Have I made you proud?’ he says ‘Yes’, and that makes me happy.”