I Was a Teenage Washout

Every student at UON has a story.

The paths we travel to arrive here are as diverse as we are. For every high school high achiever, for whom university study was an expected next step, an accepted reality, there is a student who greets university life as something of an anomaly. UON has an inordinate number of students who are the first in their family to attend university. People from working class, marginalised and disadvantaged backgrounds mingle happily with the more traditional student body, largely due to UON’s hugely successful foundation studies programs: Open Foundation, Newstep and Yapug.

I am a graduate of Open Foundation, considered one of the more successful foundation studies program in the country. Applying for Open Foundation was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life, and I’ve been asked to share my story. Open Foundation’s intensive program is a lesson in swimming in the deep-end; a hard slog that helped me recognise my potential and is intrinsic to my success as an undergraduate.

In my experience, every foundation studies student has been punched in the face by life and is desperate to prove themselves. The classrooms are populated with single parents, people who struggled with the high school experience, wash-outs, wastoids, empty nesters, abuse survivors, frustrated intellects and folks who fell, or were left behind.

People who always had a niggling sense about the existence of their own intelligence, yet had never found an appropriate arena to explore it. Beautifully complex people with massive reserves of determination, grit and potential.

My kind of people.

Personally, I bummed out of high school. I was a reasonable, if easily distracted, student who through procrastination and apathy became a wholly unremarkable one. I zoned out one day and never logged back in. I’d never really developed any study skills, had no real ambitions and simply let myself get passively washed around like a piece of driftwood.

I sat the HSC, failed miserably, and didn’t really care. My mark was so low that presenting my results to the bartender at The Brewery earned me a free beer.

By luck or by fate I washed, like a piece of flotsam, into the kitchen of a local bistro. There I encountered a singularly inspiring individual who saw some kernel or potential in me and set about sloughing away my disinterested and defeated skin, turning me into something of a decent chef.

I developed ambition. I embraced a ridiculous work ethic. I learnt pride. I developed, maintained and fiercely defended standards. I had learned how to set a goal, survey a problem, break it down into manageable chucks, prioritise, execute and achieve.

What does this have to do with uni, you ask?

Well, with this new-found sense of self and ambition came the crushing realisation that I was not only my own worst enemy, but had wasted a whole slew of opportunities and potential and, y’know, just maybe, I was bit of a flake.

Failure at school had made me feel somewhat like a Neanderthal, yet, I had a suspicion that I wasn’t an idiot. At one point, I had worked myself to the bone and decided I needed to have a break from the restaurant industry, so I quit my job and applied for Open Foundation the next day. I signed up for the intensive, six-month program, took a casual job scrubbing dishes, and proceeded to soil myself every day until I walked into the university, with absolutely zero idea what was about to happen.

It was terrifying. Exhilarating. I’d never felt so daunted.

Open Foundation is an exhausting, inspiring and a singularly life-changing program offered by this university. Sitting in a room with brilliant and nurturing teachers and students, with remarkably diverse experiences, skills, abilities and stories, all working towards an individual, yet strikingly common goal is easily one of the more rewarding experiences of my life.

All of us were nurturing a tiny spark of self-belief and ambition outside the world we had experienced. Open Foundation threw tinder on that spark.

Open Foundation taught us students how to utilise the resources of the university. How to research in the library, use NewCat, Blackboard, Turnitin, and how to navigate the turbid waters of the enrolment system. As most of us had minimal experience in any form of educational institution, we were painstakingly taught how to write a sentence, a paragraph and an essay. Piece by piece, slowly but surely, we learned how to construct – and poke holes in – an argument and how to reference. This was academic boot-camp and by the end we were hardened and ready for undergraduate life.

Perhaps the most important discovery for me was that the skills and values the cruel U-Boat of the hospitality industry had instilled in me were easily transferable to academia. Open Foundation helped us identify skills and strengths we already possessed and how to adapt these to a personalised study style. I learnt to approach every reading, every lecture, every assignment as a chef would.

I believe this is why the ‘mature-aged’ (cough) student, with their Hermione hand firmly in the air, regaling the class with anecdotes and generally bemusing and annoying the others, has become something of a cliché. We have something to prove, nothing to fear, no time to waste, we’ve already lived most of our tempestuous days out and we’ve been hot-wired to survive in the university’s self-directed environment.

So be kind to the older kids in your class. They’ve probably been through some weird shit and they’re now walking a path they previously may have felt was closed to them. And best of luck to the newest crop of foundation studies students set to arrive on campus. I’m a massive screw-up and I made it. You can too.