Former refugees' heroic path to university

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The path to higher education is never easy. For Joska Tschombe and Hieu Tran, it was a remarkable achievement.

Joska, 18, is happy, confident and knows what she wants in life.

The Adelaide-based student will begin studying a Bachelor of Business at university this week with thousands of other Australians her age, but her path to secure her seat in class may have been harder than most.

She grew up in a refugee camp in Uganda, after her family fled civil war in Sudan before she was born.

Even after the conflict officially ended, an unstable social and political environment persisted.

With nine children to care for, her parents chose safety over education.

"Her two older sisters are already enrolled in degrees, in nursing and science and technology, respectively."

She remembers it through the eyes of a child under ten.

“I was in primary school, and that’s when I stopped (school),” she said.

“At the time I stopped, they said that peace was back in Africa, and everyone was going back to Sudan.

“It was chaos. (There were) people trying to kill other people who were still in the village, trying to go back to Sudan.

“We had to stop school and just stay home.”

Coming to Australia almost ten years ago brought new challenges.

“It was fun, but at the same time, difficult, because you make new friends and you want to talk to them, but there’s no way of communication, because you don’t know how to speak English," she said.

Joska, who eventually wants to become a lawyer, is far from the lone high achiever in her family.

Her two older sisters are already enrolled in degrees, in nursing and science and technology, respectively.

Her father is also in the final stages of a degree in social work.

“If he is there, and he’s 40 something and still studying, I think that’s enough to inspire anybody,” she said.  

“It just shows you’re not too old to keep on studying.”

Newly enrolled Architectural Design student, Hieu Tran, has also had to overcome more obstacles than most to reach university.

“They’re growing up in disadvantaged communities, we know they start school developmentally vulnerable."

His parents arrived with few possessions from Vietnam before he was born, in the hope of giving their children a better life.

It was a vision realised when their youngest child finished school last year with an ATAR university entrance score of 98.35.

Hieu will now follow his older sisters into higher education, planning to study a bachelor of Architectural Design at the University of South Australia.

“We’re the first in our family,” Hieu said.

“My parents, neither of them finished high school, because their parents didn’t have enough money for them to go to school.”

For both families, helping their children with their studies proved challenging.  

As well as the language barrier, money to support schooling was also an issue.

They both sought help from the Smith Family, who provide financial and educational support through their Learning for Life program.

Chief Executive of the Smith Family, Dr Lisa O'Brien, said the program was currently helping 34,000 disadvantaged students across the country complete schooling.

“The kids the Smith Family supports absolutely start school behind,” she said.

“They’re growing up in disadvantaged communities, we know they start school developmentally vulnerable.

“They often fall further behind in their schooling, and they’re far less likely to achieve an amazing milestone like completing Year 12.”

For both Hieu and Joska, the goal was to pay it forward.

“Back in Africa, there’s not really enough lawyers or… people to support the community,” Joska said. 

“If I become a lawyer, maybe I can go back to Africa and help out people there.”

But first, a few more years hitting the books.

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