Human rights barrister Jennifer Robinson has fought free speech cases on the international stage. She has acted for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, The New York Times and Bloomberg. She studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.
Her springboard to all this was Bomaderry High on the NSW South Coast. “I definitely would not be where I am today, and be a lawyer, were it not for public education,” she said.
But she was a rarity at Oxford, where she met few other publicly educated Australian students. Most of her private school peers had grown up knowing about the Rhodes Scholarships most of their lives; she only heard of them once she’d left school.
Human rights lawyer Jennifer Robinson is a proud graduate of Bomaderry
“I saw the privileged networks among kids from private schools, who all seemed to know judges and lawyers and politicians,” she said. “I want public school kids to have these discussions, the examples, and have access to these networks.”
In partnership with the Public Education Foundation, Ms Robinson on Thursday launched the Acacia Scholarships, a program in which public school alumni donate to their old school district, and share their knowledge and experience with public school students.
The inaugural Acacia fellows include comedian Adam Hills from Jannali Boys’ High, author Kathy Lette from Cronulla High, and journalist Tom Tilley from Mudgee High.
The first group of fellows are well known but Ms Robinson said all public school graduates who wanted to give back were invited to join them. She hopes there will eventually be fellows mentoring students in every school district in Australia.
“When I was at school, I was looking around for inspiration for what I wanted to do and didn’t see much of it,” she said. “It got me thinking about the importance of representation. [I want public school students to see] what opportunities are available to them, what’s out there for them, and what’s possible for them”.
Foundation chief executive David Hetherington said the scholarships would be awarded to students “at the intersection of potential and need, who clearly want to make a success of their education”.
The fellows will donate $3000 over three years to fund a scholarship, and will also give their time to mentor students. Hills, for example, will hold workshops with students keen on a career in comedy or television.
“They can pepper him with questions and get a sense of how it’s possible to tread a path that seems distant and unclear in year 10 — and probably did to Adam, too — but that is possible, if you can access the right people and have the right encouragement,” Mr Hetherington said.
To mark the launch, the fellows have remembered a teacher with a long-lasting influence. For Hills, it was Mr Chisholm, a maths teacher. While other teachers were applauding Hills for doing everything that was required of him, Mr Chisholm told his parents he was capable of more.
“It made me really angry,” Hills said in a video message. “And it made me work harder at maths than any other subject. And it made maths my best subject. But it also made me work harder at everything.
“Push yourself. Go a bit further. I’m hoping that being associated with the Acacia Scholarship means I can pass on a Mr Chisholm moment to someone else.”