Scholarship offers new hope to refugees in Australia
As the holder of a Temporary Protection Visa (TPV), Meriam was considered an "international student" and faced the prospect of full fees if she wanted a tertiary place. Nor could she access the full benefits and services offered to other refugees with permanent protection visas.
"There were times when I was wondering, 'What is the point of finishing year 12?'," she said.
Meriam is an Iraqi refugee who arrived in Australia by boat in 2001. She spent two months in the Woomera detention centre before she was recognised as a refugee and given a TPV - a type of protection visa introduced in Australia in 1999 for refugees who arrive in an "unauthorised way".
Luckily for Meriam, near the end of 2003, she heard about a new scholarship programme offered by the University of Adelaide to TPV holders to make university education a realistic option. Today she has just completed her first year of biotechnology studies and is one of two refugees to win a scholarship in 2004 worth up to $20,000 a year per student.
One of the driving forces behind the TPV Access Scheme is the Executive Director of Student and Staff Services, Susan MacIntosh, who sees the programme as tapping into a valuable source of academic talent who could benefit from a tertiary education.
"We were seeing these students who were doing brilliantly at school and couldn't access a university education. It just seemed like a terrible crying waste," she said.
The scholarship covers all tuition, services and university fees and the University also helps with access to other services to deal with the transition into university life, such as an initial induction programme, ongoing access to counsellors and personal mentoring.
A fund at the University of Adelaide has been established to cover other expenses associated with a university education, which staff can contribute to via regular direct-debit payments. According to MacIntosh, staff and students are more than willing to contribute to helping Access Scheme students succeed. "It binds all of us. The university feels it relates to its core reason for being here, which is to offer educational opportunities to people in our community. It fits within our mission," she said.
MacIntosh highlights the unique difficulties TPV holders face as university students. "They have other challenges. They have come from difficult backgrounds and so they need that support," she says. "Student life is very important to the university and the scheme gives them access to this important lifestyle."
For Meriam, the scholarship has opened up a new world of opportunity and, studying biotechnology, she is looking forward to paying back those who have put faith in her through contributions of money and time.
"I am really into the pharmaceuticals research field. I like the idea of inventing new medicines because there are so many people suffering around the world and I would like to be able to help," she says. Meriam has so far overcome considerable challenges, like getting used to a new language and culture, but she doesn't intend to stop there: "It would be really great to come up with a medicine for cancer," she said.
The University of Adelaide programme offers one scholarship in each of its five faculties in areas of study as diverse as medicine, commerce, the humanities and engineering for TPV holders who meet the academic standards.
A number of other Australian universities offer scholarships or fee waivers to students holding TPVs through official schemes or on a case-by-case basis, including the University of New South Wales, Charles Sturt, Notre Dame, the University of Technology Sydney, and Curtin University, while the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) offers them to holders of both TPV and Bridging Visas. For more information, contact the individual institutions.
By Jacob Hatton and Ariane Rummery