Agnes lifts the barriers

Originally from Ireland, Agnes and Tansi McInerney understands what it’s like to forge a new life in a new country. This experience is part of the reason why Agnes established the Lifting the Barriers Refugee Scholarship, a $42,700 scholarship designed to help refugees access tertiary education in their new country.

As daughter Tansi explains, Agnes wants to help those students who found it difficult to access higher education. “My mum was born in country Ireland in the 1930s and moved to the city (Dublin) to work until the age of 24 when her brother paid for her passage to Canada.

“It was while working in Calgary that she met my father, who was an Australian on a working holiday. They married in 1960, and then decided to move to Australia.

“I think she identifies with what she imagines to be the experience of young refugees arriving in Australia – settling into a new country where you know nobody, where you’re financially vulnerable, and where you are a long way from your emotional support systems.” Although she has had a very full life, I think she identifies with those for whom a higher education is a barrier, because it’s not something that she was able to access herself.

Agnes first looked to create a scholarship for high school students but thanks to an existing relationship with Charles Sturt University – including the James McInerney Memorial Scholarship – she opted to establish the Lifting the Barriers Scholarship at Charles Sturt instead.

“There’s a sentimental connection with Charles Sturt that derives from my father’s experience of going to the Wagga Agricultural College in the 1950s. Our connection with Charles Sturt has very much been driven by our relationship with Justin Williams (Faculty Advancement Officer). Over the years, that personal relationship with the university – the trip we’ve made up to the Wagga Campus, the positive experience of meeting recipients and their families at scholarship ceremonies – has been quite rewarding. So, when the gap in support at higher education level became quite apparent to us, we started talking to Justin about doing something for people from refugee backgrounds.”

Both Tansi and Agnes are personally involved in selecting the scholarship recipient. “We heard stories of great vulnerability and adversity and trauma. Some of those stories were hard to read, but it also confirmed our belief that refugees arriving in Australia have already overcome a range of insurmountable obstacles and need assistance to rebuild their lives.”

Value of higher education

When asked about her family’s legacy, Tansi says it’s consistent with the value her parents placed on higher education and the opportunities and choices it creates. “Me and my five siblings are adopted, and throughout our childhood had an additional nine foster children staying with us too. So, we grew up with children from families that were experiencing crises, disadvantage, short term illness, mental illness and other challenges.

“I think it’s very easy to forget how lucky we are and how unlucky others can be. Mum and Dad raised us to be aware of our privilege. In my case, as an adoptee who met my birth mother when I was 25, it was quite evident that my life would have been very different had I not been adopted by James and Agnes McInerney. I would not have had access to a higher education and I possibly would not have been raised to believe myself capable of achieving a higher education. Consequently, I feel strongly about supporting those with less privilege than me.

“Speaking personally, I was the recipient of a scholarship myself when I did my Bachelor degree, and I remember feeling the validation of knowing that a panel of people selected me and thought me capable. It’s incredibly validating, motivating and life-changing. The opportunity to be able to then pass that on to other individuals is something I feel quite deeply about. We hope that this is a life-changing opportunity for the recipient. I think we both believe that by lifting the financial barrier, the recipient can focus on overcoming all the other barriers to achieving at university. We sincerely wish that the recipients of this scholarship can complete their study, and that they can get a job and focus on rebuilding their lives here in Australia.”