It's not uncommon for students to have false starts as they navigate the challenging transition from high school to higher education.
For Peter Swanton, the road to the perfect degree at ANU included study detours in project management and engineering.
But after a long journey, the Kamilaroi man from Mackay will this week graduate, having completed a Bachelor of Science majoring in physics with distinction. And he's going to revel in the moment.
"This wasn't just a three-year degree, it has been nearly a 15-year journey to get where I am and now I want to enjoy it," says Pete.
Pete has faced great personal tragedy during this journey. But dedication to his degree, as well as residential and cultural support, peer mentors and top-down encouragement at ANU have seen him successfully through.
A lucky find and warm welcome
Pete always had a natural ability with maths, but had never studied physics because he’d heard it was hard. Inspired by a lecturer who brought physics to life with real-world examples, Pete “caught the astronomy bug” and discovered the ideal course at ANU.
By a stroke of good luck, Pete found the course he wanted to study at ANU just a day before applications closed for the mid-year intake in 2016. Two weeks later, he’d been accepted and was packing up for the move to Canberra.
Landing in a strange place and a night or two in a Dickson backpackers was daunting, but Pete says he found his feet after hearing about the Tjabal Indigenous Higher Education Centre at ANU.
The Tjabal Centre provides support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students through a community hub on campus, as well as pastoral care, tuition programs, accommodation assistance and scholarships.
“I thought, I’m going to find that place. I told Aunty Robin Dass, who was working there at the time, that I didn’t have a place to stay. She said ‘don’t worry, we’ll take care of you’ and two days later I got an offer of a place to live at Toad Hall,” says Pete.
“The Tjabal centre always has a kitchen stocked with coffee and stuff in the fridge so you can always come in and have a piece of fruit, a cup of tea and a yarn with someone.”
Former Tjabal student Sam Provost—now the Centre’s Community Outreach Officer and part of Pete’s support crew—says Tjabal’s services really boost students’ success.
“When we sit down with new students we develop a tailored support package based on their goals and aspirations. More than anything we see our role as keeping the students in the field of play so that they can excel in their studies,” says Sam.
“Of course the students that we attract to ANU are driven and passionate about their studies, but being a former Tjabal student myself I can say that the support we provide plays a key role in our students’ successes.”
Sad news and a driving force
Moving almost 2,000 kilometres away from home and Country would be hard enough for anyone, but Pete also received news that his father was suffering from kidney failure. He was in and out of hospital for the next six months, as Pete tried to settle into study at ANU.
“Dad had a kidney transplant that didn’t take and I got a call 45 minutes before I was due to sit my exams that he had passed away. I had hoped he would hold out until after my exams, but that just wasn’t to be,” Pete reflects.
“I went home to be with my family, and it was a really tough time. To be honest, the way things were, I wasn’t sure if I was going to come back.”
After some time with family, Pete was determined to get his exams done. He got them done with distinction—three distinctions.
“Dad was always really proud of what I was doing, of being here and bettering myself, so that has always been a driving force since then. I knew I was meant to be here.”
Support from the top down
For Pete, the weighty subjects of astrophysics and astronomy made for tough study, but the academic tutoring system offered at ANU really helped him succeed.
“They pair you up with later-year students or masters and PhD students, who have done the course before you. I got two hours one-on-one tutoring per week per subject and this really helped me.”
As well as the tutoring program and pastoral care from Tjabal, Pete says the community of Toad Hall was an important part of his support network.
“That’s where I was staying when Dad passed away. The admin manager there, Cindy, and Dr Ian Walker, were there for me through the whole of my degree. At the low points, but they were also there to help me celebrate when I achieved things.”
Pete also struck up a friendship with Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt.
“I’ve actually become friends with the VC because obviously he’s an astronomer, so we talk shop all the time. He even sent me an email at the end of semester congratulating me on my results.
“For me, this whole University from the top down has been supportive and that’s huge a factor in my success.”
Indigenous tradition meets hard science
While studying hard science, Pete was also exploring the astronomy practised by of our First Peoples—and discovering strong links between the two.
“I found it very compatible. Indigenous astronomy is very much observational astronomy. They notice things in the sky and incorporate that knowledge into the stories and that’s their way of encoding information,” Pete says.
“In science today we write papers to encode these observations. But in Aboriginal astronomy what we did was take our observations of the stars and encode them into stories—which are as valid a science as what we do here at ANU.
“For example when the earth rotates, you can see the emu in the sky differently and they used it like a calendar. Later in the year the emu’s legs can’t be seen and that implied the male emu was incubating the eggs, so that was when you could hunt for emu eggs.”
Fellow ANU astronomy and astrophysics student, Gamilaraay woman Karlie Noon, has been a “huge inspiration” for Pete.
Karlie is also graduating this week, with a master’s degree and delivered a keynote speech at the first ever Grand Graduation celebration—a new tradition bringing the whole ANU community together to celebrate students’ achievements and their support crews of family, friends and academics.
“She’s someone that I aspire to be like. I’ve learnt so much from her about Indigenous astronomy and ways of working, and she’s been through similar things to me,” Pete says.
Too many options
Having set the bar high for achievement early in his study, Pete was driven to maintain stellar standards. He has succeeded in this mission, passing his final exams with distinction.
So what’s next for Pete? He plans to have a year off to relax, take stock and consider the many options before him.
Pete never imagined research and academia would be a valid pathway for him. But now his skill set is “really valuable and so broadly applicable” he has too many choices.
“When you do a science degree, you’re not training exclusively to be a physicist. You’re being trained as a problem solver and there’s not an industry at the moment that doesn’t need problem solvers,” he says.
“When I started my degree I did it because I had no other options. I’d exhausted all my ideas of what I wanted to do.
“Now I’m at the end of my degree, I’ve got the exact opposite problem—too many options!”