By Elie El-Khoury Antonios:
It’s February 25, 2014, my first day as a social work student at Western Sydney University. I remember it well. I hurried to one of the big lecture theatres on campus, amid a crowd of people trying to get in. Being in a wheelchair, I was conscious not to try and run over anyone when entering the room to find a seat, luckily I already had my own! See, you will definitely need a sense of humour because as I found out, settling into university life as a student with a disability, can be anything but smooth at times.
One major change that I found difficult to adjust to was having to speak up for myself. On the university orientation, I was required to speak to a disability advisor regarding what type of support I needed at university. I was so anxious that I could barely get three words out. I have absolutely no problem communicating, but all the way throughout high school staff members often spoke on my behalf. It felt like I had been thrown into the deep end and was forced to try and think on my feet. Looking back though, the more times I did speak for myself, the more I became confident in knowing exactly what help I needed to succeed at university. My advice to you is that, you are responsible for yourself at university and being able to articulate what you need and how you want people to assist you will be a massive help as you move into your career path.
What I also didn’t realise when I first started was that the image on the prospectus booklet of the university, can seem like a world away from the reality of being a university student. Instead of sitting on the grass, surrounded by a large of group of colleagues, I often found myself plonked near a silver bench adjacent to the library. I sat there questioning why I picked the course and why it was so hard to meet people and socialise with them. I wished I knew how to show people that I could go out and be like them, On top of this, I was struggling to stay focused and barely passed my first assessment. However, the frustrating start to my degree did provide me with a great opportunity to reflect on what was important: my degree and why I had chosen to become a social worker in the first place. So, I put my head down, went to the library and smashed out my assignments. My marks improved, I became more involved in class, and started to earn acknowledgment from other students for my efforts. Over time, I felt like one of the students on the front cover of the prospectus booklet. It showed me that despite the initial challenges I encountered, I needed to maximise my time at university, in order to get a degree and a job, like every other student.
These experiences will shape how I move forward into my career path as a social worker or university lecturer, a far cry from the 18 year old who sat alone near those silver benches outside the library. So, I encourage you to take advantage of every opportunity that is presented to you and to learn from each experience whether good or bad. When my first lecture commenced, the lecturer spoke about valuing people’s experiences and cherishing every moment you have at university to improve yourself and reach your destination. As a student entering their final year, nothing is more accurate than that.