Beyond a Lifetime: The Gift of Education
University has imbued mature-age student Joni Letson with a positive outlook and a zest for life.
For the first time the mature-age student has stopped "running away" and is brimming with newfound confidence - a remarkable turnaround that she attributes to her university studies.
Joni said going to university is the best thing that has ever happened to her. "It has been life-changing and continues to be so. I am so grateful for the opportunity and my aim is to use what I have learned to give something back to the community."
Letson was named the inaugural winner of the Dr Beryl Collier Indigenous Scholarship, a financial gift of more than $11,000 to assist with education costs and fees. It is awarded from a $300,000 bequest to the University from the estate of the late Dr Collier, an esteemed gynaecologist and obstetrician who also worked with the Central Coast Reconciliation Group.
Letson's path to university was an unorthodox one. She left school on the Central Coast in Year 7 to escape an unhappy home life and spent the next seven years living rough on the streets of Sydney. After falling pregnant with the first of her two daughters, she attempted to bring some order to her life, moving in with her grandparents and finding odd jobs in telesales and retail.
When her second daughter was born and subsequently diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, Letson became more determined to provide her family with a stable existence.
"The only thing I knew was that I did not want my children having an upbringing like mine," she said.
"I thought, 'here I am, I am a mother of two, I am 28 years old, and I have nothing'. So I applied for public housing, then I read about the University's Open Foundation program at Newcastle and I thought, 'I am going to give it a go. I'll fly by the seat of my pants and if I can do that, maybe I can do a university degree.'"
Letson excelled in her Open Foundation studies and was delighted to be offered a place in Bachelor of Psychology program.
"Psychology has been a lifelong interest for me," she said. "I bring a lot of life experience to the class discussions, but I have learned as much from the other people in my course as they have learned from me."
The Beryl Collier scholarship has made a world of difference to Joni.
"It helps me make ends meet, which reduces my stress and allows me to concentrate on my study and my family. I am so grateful and I am determined to do the scholarship justice."
Dr Beryl Collier understood the value of quality education. She was fortunate to have had parents who could support their daughter throughout her studies.
However Beryl was conscious that not everyone has the same opportunities and support to learn as she did. Particularly through her volunteer work with the Central Coast Reconciliation Group, Beryl saw the hurdles that Indigenous people must overcome to access higher education.
Long-time friend and executor of Beryl's Will, Betty Leach, said that Beryl was not one to remain idle.
"Beryl grew up at a time when education was highly respected. She believed that everyone had potential, but because of a lack of financial support, they couldn't realise that potential."
Mrs Leach said the scholarship was a practical solution that honours Beryl's respect for both education and the Indigenous community.