Celebrating our first generation university graduates

14 Mar 2023

Most of my family left school after Year 10 to begin a trade – so I thought that’s what I would do as well.

ANU students, alumni and staff who are the first in their immediate family to attend university are considered 'first generation'. 

Research* demonstrates that almost half of Australia's university student population are first generation students, who are known to experience a greater number of challenges throughout their journey towards and through higher education. 

This Alumni Week (Saturday 18 March to Friday 24 March),ANU is celebrating first generation staff, studentsand alumni as we acknowledge that being at university is a significant achievement, especially when you havestepped out of what is known or expected in your community. 

In the lead up to Alumni Week, On Campus spoke to two staff members who are first generation graduates - Dr James Brann and Ms Darvina Rahmat.  

Dr James Brann 

Dr James Brann didn't always think a tertiary education was for him. 

Growing up in Dubbo,the traditional land of the Tubbagah people of the Wiradjuri nation, James didn't know what a university really was until Year 10.  

"University wasn't really talked about in my household - I wasn't aware that therewas more than one university you could go to," James said.  

"Most of my familyleft school after Year 10 to begin a trade - so I thought that's what I would do as well." 

His Year 12 English teacher even told James that he probably shouldn't go beyond secondary school.  

Unswayed by this remark, James continued with his studies and after successfully completing Year 12, wasoffered a place at Charles Sturt University in the Bachelor of Sport Science  

"If it wasn't for my interest in sport, I don't think I would have ever gone to university." 

After finishing his undergraduate degree, and discovering his passion for education, James travelled the world as a teacher for five years. 

Returning to Australia, he enrolled in a Master of Education at the University of New England, which ultimately led to a PhD at the University of New South Wales in politics and international relations.  

Now in his current role as the Director of University Experience at ANU, James wantsfirstgeneration students to know that it doesn't really matter where you're from - or what your family background is - you can be successful at university. 

"If you're a firstgeneration student, it's okay to feel like an outsider some of the time because of your family background." 

"However, being a firstgeneration student can be your power," James said.  

"You are being set up with the tools to pursue whatever you choose to do." 

James also encourages first generation students to regularly check in with their families.  

"While you're at university, I encourage you to talk to your families about your university experience and to take your family along for the ride as well." 

Darvina Rahmat 

Darvina's story is one of perseverance and unwavering self-belief. 

Growing up in Singapore in a family of five, Darvina didn't think university was for her.   

Her father had left school in Junior High, and none of her siblings were considering going to university.  

After finishing school, Darvina enrolled in the Singapore Institute of Technical Education.  

She then planned to do a diploma to further her skills but had to unexpectantly leave her studies when her father suddenly lost his job.  

"I was prepared to give up my studies so I could support my family," Darvina said.   

For the next several years, Darvina worked as an IT support officer. 

It wasn't until she was 28 that she decided to go back to university and resume her studies - this time enrolling at the Kaplan Institute of Higher Education in a diploma of communications and media.  

She then transferred to the University of South Australia, with which Kaplan had a partnership, and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in communications and media management in 2013.  

Reflecting on her university journey, Darvina acknowledges that it was often a challenge to persevere with her tertiary studies when her parents and siblings didn't have the experience of a university education.  

"Looking back, it was often a challenge to navigate what was expected of me at the tertiary level. 

"At first, I struggled a bit and didn't know who to turn to." 

Now a Student Information Officer at ANU Student Central, Darvina's university journey has influenced her commitment in helping current students find their feet at ANU.  

"Try not to let your past pull you back - it's never too late to pursue your dreams." 


*(O'Shea, May, Stone, 2015, p.5 "Breaking the barriers: supporting and engaging first-in-family university learners and their families").