Course: Final-year Law and Criminology student at UNSW.
I want to share with you some of the ways in which Pinnacle has empowered me to achieve things that never would have been possible without the support I’ve received. To highlight just how important an organisation like Pinnacle is, I want to take you back to the start of my journey and show you how I got to where I am today.
I grew up in Richmond, at the foot of the Blue Mountains. I experienced almost daily bullying throughout my primary and early high school years, compounded by living difficulties at home. I was always seen as different, and as a bit of a nerd. When I discovered my attraction to men around the age of 12 or 13, it just reinforced the message that I was somehow broken, or wrong.
These experiences culminated in severe anxiety, especially social anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide. After eventually coming out at school (to a handful of people initially, but the rumours spread like wildfire), ironically, the bullying actually stopped – some even came up to me to apologise. Coming out had freed me to be open about who I was at school, and I found a group of friends who accepted me the way I was.
These experiences encouraged me to become fiercely independent. Whenever I got home, I locked myself in my room and studied hard. I aspired to study Law at university – I was a big history, literature and theatre nerd – and it just seemed to capture all of those interests while giving me the knowledge and skills to help people in situations like the ones I was in. After completing Year 12, I applied to live at UNSW before I was even accepted as a student there. I moved in with no job, little financial support and less than $1500 in savings. I remain incredibly grateful that I found an accommodation provider who was willing to be lenient with my rental payments as I struggled through that time – my situation could have turned out a lot worse if I hadn’t.
Fast-forward to O-Week, and while perusing the stalls I noticed one flying the rainbow flag and the words “Queer Collective”. I was shocked! There were not only other people like me, but so many that could form their own stall? Still, I refused to approach them. I was determined not to become the token queer on campus and have my sexuality define me, like I felt it did in high school. But, reading the student newspaper that night, I discovered that this Collective had their very own room on campus, a “Queer Space”. And (even better) that they were having a Pokemon dress-up party that week. Queer nerds, with their very own private lounge on campus. I summoned up the courage, despite my heart thumping wildly in my chest and begging me to just go home, and stepped inside.
What I found that night was a new kind of family. A group of people who, even though they barely knew me, immediately accepted me for who I was. People I didn’t have to explain myself to upon introduction. People I didn’t have to be fearful around. And in that space over the next year, I was able to learn for the first time about the history of LGBTIQ+ people. Histories, stories, struggles, achievements that I had never known a thing about before. I learned that there were LGBTIQ+ people, proudly open and achieving success in virtually every profession. I learned about Michael Kirby, Patron of the Pinnacle Foundation, who was not only openly gay in the legal profession, but who had reached its peak as a Justice of the High Court of Australia. And all of this changed my worldview radically. Importantly, the Queer Collective also introduced me to The Pinnacle Foundation.
Pinnacle has become an extension of the family I found on campus. My Pinnacle family includes the other incredible scholars, each of whom inspire me with their work, achievements and support for me and each other, the staff who offer both proactive support and the knowledge that I’ve always got someone who has my back and of course the mentors. My mentor, Aaron, has provided me with insight, experience and advice, ranging from the professional to the academic and even the personal. It is been profoundly inspiring to see somebody like Aaron thriving in their profession and living an incredible life. He, as well as the other mentors, are wonderful role models and something I wish every LGBTIQ+ student had access to.
Of course, the other amazing aspect of Pinnacle is the scholarship funding. Before I became a Pinnacle Scholar, I had to work up to three jobs during Uni breaks and long hours in semester to remain afloat and cope with the costs of study. I was unable to afford a laptop, so used an old second-hand one that didn’t work unless it was plugged in at the wall (a struggle in many lecture halls!). Pinnacle also helped me save up for things like a suit; for much of my time at university I stood out at legal networking events doing my best to look the part but always falling short of the expectations. Importantly, I’m now able to strike much more of a balance between work, volunteering and study. I’m also proud to say that since becoming a Pinnacle Scholar, my grades for each semester have never dropped below a Distinction average.
Because of the support and empowerment I’ve received, I was encouraged to delve into projects that were supporting my community both on and off-campus, including getting involved with the campaign for marriage equality and scholarships for LGBTIQ+ students on campus. I was elected Queer Officer at the end of my first year (so my plan to avoid being the token queer on campus failed pretty drastically), and from there I’ve also had the opportunity to represent LGBTIQ+ students as the State Queer Officer for the National Union of Students and Convener of the Australian Queer Student Network. It was in that first on-campus role, though, that my co-Queer Officer and I discovered students living in the Queer Space on campus. We also discovered that this was a perennial issue every year. Some had been kicked out of home for simply being themselves, but I later found others who had been made homeless because of domestic violence, dodgy landlords or other situations, often attached to their sexuality and/or gender identity. These students didn’t know where to turn to for help. They didn’t even trust the Queer Collective or the University to support them, because of the stigma associated with homelessness and their experiences of homophobia and transphobia.
This experience inspired me to turn to the university and our student organisation at UNSW and put forward a solution. Within a few months, I successfully negotiated the establishment of two crisis accommodation rooms on campus. This would involve not only a place to stay, but also fast-tracked counselling and psychological support, welfare and employment advice and assistance to find somewhere permanent to stay.
I didn’t stop at UNSW, though. It was obvious to me that this issue wasn’t something that was confined to one campus. I reached out to other institutions across Australia and organised a workshop attended by hundreds of LGBTIQ+ students from across Australia in 2014. The outcome of this workshop was the launch of the Ending Queer Youth Homeless Project, a project I’ve led every year since then. Through this project, we’ve designed flyers and posters for every campus in Australia, launched a national portal to show what LGBTIQ+-friendly resources are available on each university campus and at a state and national level, and we’ve met with MPs to raise the profile of this issue. We even co-wrote a cross-party Senate motion in 2017 to call for state and national research and funding. Still waiting on a bit more action, but it’s in the works!
In addition to my LGBTIQ+ work, I’ve also had the opportunity to represent students for two years on the UNSW Academic Board and on the SRC. In those roles, I achieved University-wide policy reforms and successfully overhauled and strengthened the student representation on the Board into the future.
I am so incredibly proud of the work that I’ve been able to do in my years as a student. But I am also so thankful for the opportunity I’ve had to achieve these things in the first place, thanks to the LGBTIQ+ family who embraced me, supported me and empowered me to get there. I never thought any of this was possible when I was in school, struggling with violence, bullying, depression and anxiety. There are, unfortunately, so many other young people who are unable to realise their potential and achieve what they’re capable of because of circumstances associated with their sexuality and gender. The incredible work Pinnacle does means that those people have a chance to chase their dreams and fulfil their potential in a way they couldn’t have before.
I’ll be sad to leave university at the end of this year, with so much of my growth and development associated with it. But I’m also so excited to begin the next chapter of my life, with the knowledge that I’ve always got my Pinnacle family looking out for me. Thank you.
We have been very busy at The Pinnacle Foundation over the last few weeks in our mission to share our work with young LGBTIQ+ Australians and establish positive and long-lasting partnerships with like-minded organisations and supporters. We have been travelling around meeting new allies and connecting with our existing partners.
We are so grateful for our Foundation Partners and corporate supporters who have opened their doors to members of our community and Foundation scholars, giving our young people an opportunity to share their journeys and the impact that the Pinnacle Foundation Scholarship Program has had on their lives. By opening their doors to Pinnacle, our partners join us in promoting education as the platform for success and a tool for life-changing opportunities for young LGBTIQ+ Australians from all around Australia studying in a wide range of fields.
Over the last few weeks, in conjunction with our Foundation Partners and supporters, we have been able to establish additional multi-year educational scholarships and mentoring support to young adults across Australia where their gender identity, sexual orientation or sexual characteristics have prevented or hindered the achievement of their career aspirations or personal development. By supporting our Scholarship Program, our partners are actively and tangibly changing the lives of young people across the nation and are helping us make great strides towards social equality and inclusion for our community. We would like to give a special thank you to our partners who have supported us and hosted events alongside us over the last few weeks and helped us to raise awareness of the Foundation’s important cause. Recently we have participated in milestone events which have formed the basis for long-term and fruitful partnerships for our Foundation and the young people we serve. Some of these events include:
AGL Latrobe Valley and Melbourne: AGL hosted a launch at Federation University in the Latrobe Valley to celebrate their partnership with us for a three-year scholarship which is open to students from the Latrobe Valley region. AGL General Manager Coal Operations, Steve Rieniets said that “AGL was proud to be a Pinnacle Foundation sponsor as one of AGL’s core values is ‘better together’ and this collaboration supports this by being respectful and inclusive of all and supporting the community in which we operate by breaking down barriers and working together.” AGL also hosted a launch event at their Melbourne headquarters where one of our scholars, Brock Manson, spoke powerfully about the impact The Pinnacle Foundation has played in achieving his goals and aspirations, and how organisations such as AGL play an important role in creating change in the lives of young LGBTIQ+ Australians.
King & Wood Mallesons (KWM) Sydney: This event launched The King & Wood Mallesons Scholarship and their multi-year partnership with The Pinnacle Foundation. The KWM Scholarship was officially launched in KWM’s Sydney offices. Great presentations were delivered by Claire Warren, Senior Associate at KWM, Paul Zahra, Chair of The Pinnacle Foundation, and Dylan Lloyd, a current scholar whose journey with Pinnacle has seen him step into a leadership role within his university’s LGBTIQ+ community and become an advocate for other marginalised community members who need support and a helping hand to secure safe and affordable housing and financial assistance during their academic careers. The KWM Scholarship will support a marginalised or disadvantaged LGBTIQ+ young adult to study law in Australia.
BHP Melbourne: BHP hosted an informative event to coincide with Wear It Purple Day which explored how different families embrace children who may identify as being a part of the LGBTIQ+ community. BHP announced in May this year its support for the Foundation and will provide three named scholarships for a period of three years, one for each of their major operating areas in Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia. This contribution will be vital in providing scholarship opportunities for young people in regional areas where there is a great need for this kind of support.
We are always grateful to our partners for championing our cause and for the progress we have made in facilitating greater access to education and community opportunities for young LGBTIQ+ Australians. We know that there is much more work that needs to be done in this area and would love to partner with you to be able to grow the Pinnacle program across Australia. If you would like to support our work at The Pinnacle Foundation, please visit our Corporate Supporters page for more information on how you can partner with us: https://thepinnaclefoundation.org/corporate_supporters-1/
What was it like for you to be part of The Pinnacle Foundation Scholarship Program?
I applied for the Pinnacle Foundation Scholarship in 2017 and was awarded the SHK Asia Pacific Scholarship in 2018 for my final year at University where I was completing a Bachelor of Laws (Hons). The scholarship program not only provided financial support during my final year at University but has also been a great opportunity to meet some wonderful people, while also opening many doors.
As part of the program, I attended the Induction Weekend in Sydney which was a fantastic experience to meet amazing people from the LGBTIQ+A+ community, including Board Members of the foundation, many of them fresh from the Marriage Equality campaign, other Scholars and my Mentor. During the weekend, the Honourable Michael Kirby presented our scholarship certificates, which was very exciting for me as a law student and prospective lawyer. It was encouraging to be surrounded by so many strong members and allies of our community. Prior to attending this weekend, I had never had the opportunity to attend an event with so many members and leaders in the LGBTIQ+ community. I regularly attend events hosted by Pinnacle and have always felt a sense of belonging, a sense of community and a real family vibe. The Pinnacle Foundation events are a great opportunity to hears stories from LGBTIQ+A+ people of all different generations and truly understand how far we society has come to accepting LGBTIQ+A+ people, although there is still some way to go.
Since my graduation, I have joined the Victorian State Committee and perform the role of secretary on that committee. This year I will also have the privilege of being a member of the Scholar selection committee, and be able to bring a unique perspective to that process having so recently experienced what it is like to be a young person at University and the day-to-day challenges that you face.
What did you gain most from being part of the Pinnacle program?
Being a Pinnacle Foundation Scholar meant that I could finish my degree with greater ease because I had access to not only financial support, but also the support from so many people within the foundation such as my mentor, and fellow scholars. Being able to identify the similarities in our journeys has made it possible to be hopeful for the future, as well as provide support when times are challenging. Being part of the Pinnacle Program has absolutely helped me build my own personal community which continues to be such an important and valuable part of my life.
What was your experience with your mentor?
I am so happy with my mentor; she has been so helpful and valuable to my experience in the Program. We keep in touch as we have always had such a good connection and I have found it easy to talk to her about my career, life experiences and things I couldn’t speak to anyone else about. During the program we touched base every month or six weeks depending on how busy we both were, and we always made an effort to keep in touch. Having someone who is supportive and available was important for my peace of mind and success in the Program.
What advice would you give to a young person who is thinking about applying for the Pinnacle Foundation Scholarship Program?
I would suggest that the young person think about what their motivations for why they are studying their course and what they want to achieve from their career and life. Understanding their personal motivations can help them be clear about their current goals and how they can get the most out of the Program. I would also recommend that applicants be candid about the challenges they have faced. Often, we minimise the challenges we have faced and do not give ourselves the credit for what we have fought against or overcome. By not sugar coating the challenges faced the Foundation will be able to identify what support might be needed, and any guidance required, which may come into helping select a mentor later down the line. I would just reiterate to the young person not to be afraid to be yourself because the Pinnace Foundation is one of the safest and most accepting places to be who you are.