Engineering graduate wins top ANU student prize

18 December 2015

I decided not to wait until I had grown up to do things

An engineering graduate with a passion for reaching out to school students has won the University's most prestigious prize for undergraduates, the Tillyard prize.

Samantha Cheah's passion found an outlet in the Robogals program which encourages girls to pursue science, technology and engineering. But when the equity program supporting Robogals was shut down she jumped in and started a program to fund it and other outreach programs.

"I decided not to wait until I had grown up to do things," Samantha said.

"I've learned to not underestimate how much a group of young people can do, even uni or high school students, with the amount of passion and determination they have."

Samantha's outreach program, Engage, has now supported three different outreach organisations to visit 626 students at 15 different schools in New South Wales and ACT. It has a volunteer staff of five students.

"What I'm trying to do is make sure kids can make informed choices about whether to go to university or not, especially in regional areas where there might not be a university," she said.

To balance her workload, Samantha was involved with the ANU Soccer Club - although as well as playing she ended up serving on the committee.

"It's a great way to meet people, and I've got a lot of support and caring from the Club," Samantha said.

Her soccer community proved invaluable when Samantha's mental health started to deteriorate.

"When I came across mental illness myself I didn't know something was wrong and to address it," she said.

"I was lucky I had a couple of people, such as a soccer coach, who knew about how to manage it, and I ended up in hospital diagnosed with bipolar disorder."

It took two years for Samantha to feel she was back on top of things, but she is optimistic about the future.

"I've enjoyed my time at ANU, learning, growing and developing," she said.

Now she has finished her degree, Samantha has big plans to grow Engage beyond a voluntary organisation, and has found mentors to help her do this.

"My advice to students is to find a mentor, someone whose job you'd like to have and catch up with them every now and then. Their wisdom and experience balances out the hot-headedness of youth," she said.

The Tillyard Prize is celebrating its 75th year in 2015. It is awarded to an undergraduate student whose personal qualities and contribution to University life has been outstanding.

It was first awarded in 1940, by the precursor of ANU, Canberra University College.