How Sai overcame adversity to achieve her ANU dream

14 September 2021

Even attending a great high school in Melbourne was an immense financial sacrifice for me and my family, and meant school holidays were often spent cleaning hotel rooms with my mum to save up for school books.

When Sai Campbell was a high school student in Melbourne, the idea of studying at ANU was a pipe dream due to the financial barriers posed by moving away from home.

She was inspired to move to Canberra and study at ANU when she visited the Acton campus in 2018 through the Australian Science Olympiad Program. 

"This was a transformative experience and cemented my interest in pursuing science at university," Sai says.

"Meeting students that had an authentic passion for biology and science from both around Australia and the world was life changing."

In 2019, Sai achieved her dream as she began a Bachelor of Philosophy (Science) at ANU and moved into Burgmann College - but at a big cost for her and her family.

"Even attending a great high school in Melbourne was an immense financial sacrifice for me and my family, and meant school holidays were often spent cleaning hotel rooms with my mum to save up for school books," she says.

Living her dream at ANU was proving to be a potentially insurmountable challenge due to her financial circumstances. But Sai wasn't about to give up on her dream she had worked so hard for. With her strong work ethic, drive and determination, she was willing to find a way that would allow her to stay.

Sai received the C.A.S. Hawker Scholarship at the end of her first year at ANU which is awarded yearly to three Australians across the country. The scholarship covers her university expenses for the rest of her degree.

"My dad and I cried when we found out I got the scholarship, because I was on the cusp of changing universities due to our financial circumstances but the scholarship made my dream of continuing my studies at ANU a reality. Scholarships that target young people from minority backgrounds can really change lives in such a huge way." Sai says.

She feels fortunate to be in her third year at ANU, but it hasn't been all smooth sailing since she received the happy news about her scholarship.  

"I have sometimes found the adjustment to university life to be rather difficult, and many students can feel out of place at the start," Sai says.

"It was hard trying to support myself in the first year of college with only Centrelink payments and part time work. College is an immense privilege and financial sacrifice, and imposter syndrome can make you feel like you only managed to get here through luck."

Sai claims she was able to navigate these feelings through the support of her mentors and friends. In particular, her experience at the John Curtin School has had the most positive impact on her and her life trajectory.

"Having mentors at the John Curtin School of Medical Research that have put their trust in me and affirmed me in a way that shows I actually do belong here has also been instrumental in helping me find my place at ANU."

Since becoming a student at ANU, Sai has immersed herself in as many opportunities as possible including working in a lab, the Australian Public Service and contributing to the ANU Student Association (ANUSA) and Migrant and Refugee Settlement Services.

Like most students, Sai has found it difficult to work out what she is interested in doing after university. Her strong interest in biology and science combined with a passion for helping others in need has fostered an interest in biomedical science.

"I can see myself pursuing a research career examining conditions like cancer or neurodegenerative diseases, and perhaps combine that with immunology," Sai says.

"It is important to me that I pay it forward and so I hope that I can contribute to making ANU an inclusive and diverse place that encourages excellence and positive change."