Ever wondered or questioned why education is important? We implore you to read Ashlee Vella’s story.
My name is Ashlee and I’m 31 years old. I grew up mostly in the Latrobe Valley, in a commission house that was in a better part of town than most. I grew up in a single parent household with one sibling. My home life wasn’t that great and was riddled with drug addiction and poverty. Safety wasn’t always ensured. I had a traumatic childhood, not in my home but with people that were considered close family friends.
During my teenage years, I dealt with bullying and my home life was a bit rough. I went through four cycles of homelessness at the ages of 13, 16, 17 and 20. I’ve had to live on people’s couches, in the youth refuge and did three rounds of staying in transitional housing.
When I was 17, I fell pregnant and although I had secured a commission unit, it wasn’t safe and was broken into and trashed because of the area it was in. I was just 120 hours away from completing Year 11 at TAFE, and seven months pregnant with severe morning sickness, when I stopped attending school. I gave birth in the following year—it would’ve been my first day of Year 12.
For a variety of reasons, I decided to head back to school when my child started school as well. I was bored, and I thought, ‘What comes next?’. I didn’t just want to be a mum, I wanted more, I wanted to be an example, a role model for my child and to show that education was important. It provided me social interaction with a purpose and I got to talk to adults.
Originally, when returning to study I didn’t go straight into university life as I had always struggled at school, so I decided that first I’d try TAFE. I enrolled in a Certificate IV in Community and Human Service, which is a 12-month-long course. I liked it that much that I enrolled in the Diploma of Community and Human Services, and was always offered the opportunity for a second diploma, so I did Case Management.
After TAFE I took a gap year and did some volunteer work, but was unsure of what came next. I was lucky to meet a student who was undertaking their placement; they showed me their workload and told me about the academic side of university.
I thought that I’d at first enrol in a Bachelor of Arts with a Major in Sociology and a Minor in Psychology. But my health was really affected throughout my whole university life; I failed a fair few subjects and was looking at repeating my first year. I spoke to the facility and it was decided I’d change over to what I knew and what I was good with based on my previous diplomas. So, I enrolled in the Bachelor of Community and Human Services.
As I mentioned previously, my general health did suffer, but not only from the study or because I was dealing with a situation of family violence. At the end of my first semester of my second year, a lecturer approached me. They were concerned I wouldn’t get through and that uni wasn’t for me. I sought support, underwent testing and was formally diagnosed with dyslexia. This is when life really started to make sense. Up until then I wasn’t understanding why I couldn’t process anything and was receiving feedback that I needed to check grammar and spelling. This diagnosis gave me extra assistance and
I learnt how to relearn everything.
Juggling being a mum, studying and having a life was difficult. As a TAFE student, everything was fine, but as a uni student… well, it isn’t for the faint-hearted. It’s taken some amazing time management skills, organisation and me frequently saying to a lot of my social circle, “Sorry, I can’t, I have to study” to get through. I can’t say it never left me stressed—it did. There were many tears and much questioning of, “Why am I choosing to do this?!” and, “What’s the point of it all?”.
Looking back now, I’ve had an amazing experience. I was a student mentor twice and helped many of my peers transfer into university. The feedback was, “We like you ‘cause you keep it real. There is no sugar coating with the level of commitment required—university takes priority in a student’s life”. I have a passion and love for lifelong learning now and am always seeking to gain more knowledge, whether academically or practically, through the various places I volunteer in the community. The most important benefits of studying would be the mentors I’ve gained, the friendships that I’ll always have and the example I set for my son.
The big question everyone’s asking me is, “What comes next?”. At first, I was really scared because I’ve studied for eight-and-a-half years. I’m used to having deadlines and assessments and was unsure of what will happen.
At this point I’m applying for jobs, I’m volunteering at a few community organisations and I’m embracing the lack of study and spending some much needed time with my son.
Having an education means that I’ve achieved the biggest goal in my life thus far. I have achieved something that I never would have imagined in my younger years. I will be able to obtain an income that will support myself and my child. I will be financially stable and will hopefully never be homeless or at risk of homelessness ever again.
I’m the first in my family to complete a degree. For me, the biggest change was when my son was in Grade 3, and asked me, “Mum, what school comes after high school?”. Now, I don’t remember a time I had this conversation with my own mum, as education wasn’t important then. This means I have changed the possible cycle of intergenerational poverty and have become
the role model for my son, and also for future generations of my family.
“Be the change that you wish to see in the world”—Mahatma Gandhi.
To me, this quote is about labels, such as you’re just a single young mum, or that you grow up in an area where living a life on government benefits is acceptable and somewhat the social norm. That your friends and family may be involved in criminal behaviour or not; some family have addictions and they’re stuck in the doom and gloom of the people they spend time with or the examples the people around them have set.
Getting an education was my way out of poverty. It was the way to show the people in my life that anything is possible—if you want change, be the change. One path may seem easier than the other and the stats may be against you as an individual, but the support that is available in this community can help you in many ways. Assistance may be talking to a counsellor, a food voucher or just somewhere to feel socially included; you just need to ask and it’s easier than staying in the trap of negativity.
I was told I’d continue the cycle of homelessness. My first goal was achieved when I secured private housing for over 10 years. When I think about the stats regarding poverty, they’re just a number. If I’m in the 1% that have changed their outcome, I can show people what I have achieved, I can mentor them and be their positive support. I can show people that with determination, resilience and empowerment, you too can make changes for the better—for yourself, your family, the children and our community. Make the change happen and change those stats.