La Trobe University’s innovative Aspire Program celebrates the importance of giving back by recognising and rewarding Year 12 students who are making a difference in their communities.
For school leavers, the agonising wait to learn your fate in terms of university offers can be a source of significant angst.
La Trobe University is eliminating that wait for a select group of inspiring school leavers who have distinguished themselves with a track record of active volunteering in their community.
Through the Aspire Early Admissions Program, these students have the opportunity to secure their place before final exams are over.
La Trobe Vice-Chancellor Professor John Dewar says the program—the first of its kind in Australia—provides a unique opportunity for alignment.
“At La Trobe, we are committed to making a positive difference to the world in which we live,” Dewar says. “The Aspire program enables us to support the efforts of inspiring young people whose values and ambitions align with ours.”
Shawn Walker, Director of Schools Engagement and Student Recruitment, says the program’s inception was sparked by both a pronounced need and an untapped opportunity.
“Higher education doesn’t have a reputation for being the most innovative sector,” Walker admits.
“But we know the market is changing, and when we talk with school principals, we hear that they don’t think ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) is necessarily an appropriate way of measuring a student’s capability.”
“When you consider the UK and US admission models,” Walker continues, “they look a lot more broadly at the whole person, for instance with interviews and writing essays, rather than just a number, which seems quite outdated.”
Open to all domestic Year 12 school leavers, the assessment process for Aspire factors in not only a minimum level of academic achievement, but also a student’s history of community engagement and a recommendation from his or her school.
“We knew there was merit in looking at a student’s community contribution because we believe that the true measure of a university’s greatness is the total effect it has on human welfare and progress,” Walker says.
“We want to recruit people who want to make a difference in their working career.”
Working closely with schools, community groups and volunteer organisations such as Country Fire Authority, Duke of Edinburgh and St John Ambulance, La Trobe aims to help nurture and instil a culture of giving and service in the next generation.
“Volunteering experience is increasingly seen as a desirable attribute and we’ve noticed a link between community engagement and employability,” Walker says.
“One of the big challenges for universities is to develop graduates who are career ready. That’s not just about having a job, but about taking a role in society.
Though the program is only in its second year, it’s already achieving resonance with students and communities across the country. Students from as far away as Broome and Darwin applied for the 2016 Aspire Program and the total number of applications received was up 126 per cent this year—a figure Walker attributes to changing priorities among students.
“There’s no doubt that younger generations have a real interest and passion for giving back,” he says.
“One of the things we need to do better as a society is celebrate that spirit of giving back, and for us, that’s about linking it back to our programs. We’re looking at our existing student structure to see how we can provide students with that experience and continue their leadership right through their degree.”
One such way La Trobe encourages early leadership involvement is by hosting the Next Generation Youth Forum, an annual event which brings together future leaders in Years 10-12 to participate in leadership and social justice workshops.
“Young people want to get involved and they want change, but they don’t necessarily have a seat at the table,” Walker says.
“As a university, we don’t want these young people to become disengaged. We want to keep that energy going throughout their degree so they can graduate and take their place at the table and contribute to changing society.”
“The other important role a university plays, we believe, is in the community. We’re repositioning to give La Trobe a stronger outward focus so that we can respond to the needs of community.”
Aspire offers for 2016 have just been made across all academic disciplines from dentistry through to arts and business.
Next year’s Aspire intake is expected to bring an additional 2000 community-minded students to La Trobe, and if the early results from the first cohort of 1200 students are anything to go by, the program’s future is dazzlingly bright.
“We’re seeing that our Aspire students are actually outperforming regular students in terms of their academic results,” Walker says.
“That’s really encouraging, particularly when you consider that students who are very much involved in their community and taking leadership roles might get ordinary results at school, but when you put them in a course at uni that they’re passionate about, they get terrific results.
“As we see these students coming through, there’s a lot of hope for the future.”
For more information about Aspire, head to the La Trobe University website.
Photos courtesy La Trobe University.