Yesterday, myself and a friend had the honour of attending a memorial service for the late Dr. Peter Smith, a long-time friend, academic, and benefactor to the University of Tasmania. Every speaker mentioned Dr. Smith's care for the students within the university, not only for their academics, but also reaching long into their careers.
The scholarship which bears his name, the Dr. Peter Smith Scholarship in the Physical Sciences, was the opportunity which first permitted me to attend university at the end of Year 12. I remember spending weeks drafting my scholarship applications, knowing full well that without some kind of financial aid from the university, my dreams had a slim chance of being realised. Now, with his help, I'll be graduating with a Bachelors degree at the end of this year. I had always meant to write a letter of thanks after I graduated, but unfortunately I won't have that chance anymore.
I consider myself to have been one of the 'lucky few', in a way. There were undoubtedly many other students who applied for that scholarship, amongst others, and not all of them could be supported. Many would have had equally good grades as I did or were promising in some other part of their application, but when funds are not limitless, the number of awardees can't be either. I'm sure that a few would manage to find another way to tertiary education, but there would also be those who had no other option, no backup plan. Maybe those people could have gone on to do equally as well as I have, or better. They still can if they're able to find the support.
As our society becomes not only more welcoming but also more insistent on receiving tertiary education, we're going to see more and more prospective students from less privileged backgrounds wanting to apply and study. For many people even now, a degree is a requirement for their preferred career. They need the degree, they want the degree, they are capable and more than willing to work for the degree, but they cannot afford the degree.
I don't know what I, or anyone else, should do to fix this. I don't know what the best course of action is. Although I can't go back in time and see exactly how my life would have been different without the support of Dr. Smith, I'm sure that my path would not have been the same as it is now. A single scholarship to a single student with no great accomplishments to her name yet - it doesn't sound like a big deal, but it has changed my life in a profound way. I don't know if I'll ever be able to help a large number of people or be particularly famous for anything, but I know now that we don't have to do anything spectacularly grand to have a very real impact on someone else's life. Perhaps it's a few nice words, or some academic support to a student who is struggling, or perhaps it's a few thousand dollars to help them support themselves financially. The same amount of money that would barely buy you a used car can completely change someone's life. These aren't acts that help millions of people at the same time, but they help a single person who might then pave the way for that kind of grand achievement. And even if they don't, you've at least made an impact that will feed into the rest of society.
“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” - Aesop, The Lion and the Mouse.