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A tale of one city, two graduates

The age of wisdom, not foolishness, is certainly in play in Newcastle. Its namesake university will imminently graduate its class of 2017.

Among the graduates are Sapphire Dawson (24) and Declan Clausen (25). Though they will both don caps and gowns, in almost every other way, they are different. Dawson is an indigenous mother of two, graduating with combined Law and Business degrees. Clausen is an Environmental Engineering graduate – and also Newcastle's youngest ever Deputy Mayor.

They both work full-time now: Dawson as a lawyer at the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Clausen as Executive Officer to the Managing Director of Hunter Water.

Campus Review asked them to reflect on the experiences that led them to their graduation ceremonies this month.

The Declan debrief

Newcastle native Declan Clausen has always been a leader. In primary school, he was a student parliament member. In high school, he was school captain. "Leadership has always been something I've been interested in," he confessed. This passion is manifest in his role as Newcastle's Deputy Mayor, where he is responsible for everything from coordinating calls about missed garbage pickups to consulting with residents about the city's construction of a solar farm.

As the youngest person to ever hold this position (and the only Council member under the age of 40), he says he's experienced some ageism, but that's nothing compared to the "sexist and misogynistic comments" the Mayor has fielded.

His day job, however, is less political. He has been employed by Hunter Water since he began undergraduate studies, after being awarded a scholarship by the government body.

This was surprising to no-one. As a child, he naturally gravitated towards tinkering, and to the environment. His father, a mechanical engineer, probably encouraged this. But the interest was further cultivated by one of his school teachers, Caroline Hayden. She urged him to enter the University of New South Wales' sustainable living challenge, where he had to invent a prototype. His design, a parabolic heating device, proved to him that engineering was his calling.

Though politics and management are currently occupying him, he still finds his Environmental Engineering degree useful. At Council, "things like storm water upgrades, drainage and the like, or waste disposal are extremely relevant to my degree," he said. "I'm the only person on the council with an engineering background."

Sapphire's story

It's cliché for a reason: it happens. Television shows like Law & Order first inspired a kindergarten-age Sapphire Dawson to pursue a career in law. Yet unlike legal TV characters, Dawson wants to eventually use her skills to help indigenous communities.

Many initially thought Dawson, a member of the Yuin tribe, wouldn't hack it. In primary and high school in Cessnock, she was constantly bullied because of her heritage. "I was called every name that could possibly come up with," she recounted.

"Everyone was like, 'Oh, you're not gonna go to uni, you're not good enough'... 'You say you wanna be a lawyer, but as if you'll actually get there'."

The jibes didn't cease once she began university, though they changed form. Instead of basic, juvenile taunts, she was told indigenous students were freeloaders because they got so many benefits. Exasperated, sometimes she would shut the bullies down.

"I was like, 'Well, I'm not getting everything'. I'd constantly have to either leave a conversation or sit there and be like, "Well, I don't get this, this, this and this. Everything you've just said is a lie ... You're painting all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people with the same brush, and you're saying we get free cars, and free houses, and free uni.

"I'm like, 'My HECS debt can attest that I don't have that. I am very poor. I have had several cars, because they break and I can't afford to fix them. And I definitely don't have a house, because I'm renting'."

Other times, she would simply escape to her "home away from home", Wollotuka – the university's indigenous institute – for a coffee or a soothing chat.

Her unemployed dad, however, was always her biggest supporter. "He's like, 'You can do whatever you want. You can go to high school, you can go and work, you can go to TAFE, or you can go to uni'."

Despite facing hardships, two pregnancies later, she made it. Dawson is the first in her family to complete university, and has inspired her cousins to follow suit. One has just finished a nursing degree at the University of Wollongong. Another began a degree in Canberra but has taken a break to join the Navy.

Dawson's achievement wasn't guaranteed. She didn't get the marks to get into law, but, being persistent, entered a specialist indigenous pathway program, Yapug. The words, "don't think that just because you've got some number on a piece of paper that that's the end of it," spoken by her Year 12 Legal Studies teacher, echoed in her mind as she pushed through over five years of her combined degrees. This ultimately led to her graduating with Second Class Honours.

Family law was her favourite university subject, and she hopes to practice it in the future. But for now, she's enjoying public service in Canberra, and the flexibility it allows her as a mother of two: one aged six, the other not even a year old. She deliberately chose to work at the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet because of its Indigenous Affairs divisions – turning down two other public sector offers in the process.

In retrospect, she's glad she didn't "bail" on her degrees, and that her father, among others, continually believed in her.

"In some other communities, going to uni can be looked down upon. Because some people will think that, because you've gone to uni, that you think you're better," she advised.

Her experience couldn't be more different. Indeed, she is now a mentor for her community's next generation. "I hope [all] my cousins go to university, and then I hope that inspires their children.

"All I want is for just them to believe in themselves, because no one ever really has told them that they can get to these great heights, and they can do all these great things."

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