Studying Bachelor of Arts (Majoring in Politics and History), as well as a Diploma of Language (Spanish) at Australian Catholic University.
From Swifts Creek, East Gippsland, but now calls Melbourne home.
Studying at ACU in Melbourne, 22-year-old Tom Boucher-Hill is loving life. He’s happily immersed in his final year of an undergraduate degree, he’s content in his part-time job working in retail, and, to use his own words, he’s ‘just happy to be happy’, because that hasn’t always been the case.
As a boy growing up in the rural community of Swifts Creek in East Gippsand, Tom says he never really fitted in and, generally, he always knew it. For one thing, he didn’t particularly enjoy playing football, but he played it anyway – at least until he was 15 -- because ‘that’s what everyone did’ and ‘that’s how you fitted in’.
To be fair, as Tom recalls it, life as a primary school kid was ‘happy enough’ and he enjoyed attending school and seeing his friends. But fast forward to high school, and that happiness was gradually eroded. With the passage of time and the onset of ‘teen pressures’, Tom’s interests and sentiments grew vastly different to his peers. Suddenly, the task of ‘fitting in’ was draining and frustrating.
But then something happened that threw Tom’s life and confidence into a whole new light: he took a chance. In Year 11, Tom was presented the opportunity to travel abroad to study for a year, as part of the Rotary Australia Youth Exchange Program. It was like a leap of faith. Though incredibly daunted at the prospect of living on the other side of the world, Tom felt quietly confident this was the ticket for him.
And so, he went …
Beginning a journey of self-discovery that would shape his passage into adulthood — which is where we pick up our chat with Tom Boucher-Hill, our latest Rural Inspire Mentor.
Ok Tom, so you decided to head to Europe in Year 11, what was your experience?
Yes, so, as a brief snapshot, when I was 16, I had the opportunity to go on exchange for a year, through Rotary. I took that opportunity, lived overseas for a year, and then when that was finished, I came back to Swifts Creek to do my VCE. Once I had completed Year 12, I went back to Europe for six months – a bit of a ‘gap’ year I guess you’d call it -- and then I came back to Australia but relocated to Melbourne to begin my tertiary studies.
The thing about my time over there was how liberating it was. I felt like I had found my people, so to speak. Like, growing up in Swifts Creek, I’d say I struggled to fit in. You know, football and things like that just weren’t for me, and when you’re in the country it’s pretty alienating if you aren’t a lover of football. I mean, I played until I was 15 and, I guess, it took me until then to be confident enough to say ‘this isn’t for me’. But, yes, generally, growing up in a country town of about 200 people I didn’t fit the mould and I always felt quite isolated. I didn’t really like home.
So, of course, when I had to go back to Swifts Creek to do my VCE after my year on exchange, I found it extremely difficult and isolating, once again. But I think my experience overseas gave me a focus and, so, I pushed through. I did my best to stay focused on my goals and then when I finished school and moved away again, eventually ending up here at ACU (Australian Catholic University), I felt that liberation once again; it was wonderful.
Tell us about life growing up in Swifts Creek. What was school like?
When I went to primary school there were two schools in Swifts Creek – the primary and the secondary – but by the time I got to secondary they had combined to become a P-12. I did really enjoy primary school; when I think back to that time, I have positive memories, for sure. But high school … it was different, and I didn’t really enjoy it. When I started Year 7, I think we had about 20 kids in the year level and then that number just dwindled as the years went on. By the time I was in Year 12 we had only five people left – the rest had moved to boarding school or other schools or had dropped-out altogether.
What kind of student were you?
I think I was an inquisitive student, especially in primary school. I was that kid who was always asking questions and always keen to find things out. But I wouldn’t say I was an A-Grade student, or anything like that, I just liked to learn. And then when I got to high school and started to find the social side of school quite difficult, I think my eagerness to learn helped me through, because I put my energy into my studies.
I’d have to say, one of the saving graces of my VCE was the Rural Youth Ambassador Program through the Country Education Partnership (CEP). Through that, I was able to engage with like-minded rural students and it helped me to realise that I wasn’t alone in the way that I thought and felt.
Were there any teachers along your journey who inspired you?
Yes, actually. During Year 12, my History teacher, Mrs Gilbertson, was a truly amazing teacher to have because she was passionate. She had actually completed her PhD in History, so she was engaged, experienced and inspiring. She certainly inspired me to undertake my History major at uni.
It’s pretty evident you didn’t enjoy growing up in a country community, but do you think living rurally can be an advantage in any way?
I think it’s an advantage in the sense that, I think, if I grew up in a metro city I would have been very complacent because everything is just so much more readily available and you don’t have to work for every little achievement, so to speak. Growing up in a rural area you do have to ‘work for it’, you do have to go out and make your own connections and forge your own path, which I think is an advantage in the long run because you’re more resourceful and resilient. But, on the flip side, growing up rurally is a real disadvantage if you’re different from everyone else. If you don’t fit the mould of ‘what it is to be a country person’, you’re consistently isolated.
What about education in a rural setting, how do you think it could be improved?
Well, I think the biggest issue is the transition from school to further study. It’s a huge step to move from living in a small country town to life at university in a city. Like, it’s a massive commitment, both financially and emotionally. I was lucky to have lived overseas, so when I went to uni it wasn’t as big of an adjustment, but I can completely understand why some country students find that transition utterly overwhelming and, I think, there’s very little genuine assistance for this.
Do you think there’s too much pressure on Year 12 school-leavers to achieve a ‘good’ ATAR and head straight to university?
I’d actually say a bit of column A and a bit of column B. I think there’s too much emphasis on students finishing school and heading straight to university, even if they have no idea what they actually want to study, which typically ends-up being a complete waste of time and money. But, on the other hand, I don’t think there’s enough pressure on students to really do well in Year 12 and to really make the most of their education.
For example, I wish I had been pushed harder in Year 12, I wish I had received more pressure about the need to do well. I mean, I didn’t do poorly, and I was quite studious, but I certainly could have worked harder – I could have used my study periods better, rather than playing Uno every day. Unfortunately, I think the Australian education system, as a whole, doesn’t push students to work hard enough. I think we worry too much about encouragement for the sake of encouragement, and our attitude is always about ‘having a go and hoping for the best’, whereas overseas, in places like Europe, they’re much more forthright and they definitely push their students to work harder and to do better. In a global economy, which is what we have, that certainly leaves us (Australia) behind.
What would you say to current Year 12 students who are weighing-up what to do beyond school?
I would say to all students, not just those in Year 12, to always pursue every opportunity that comes your way. In my case, I had the opportunity to go on exchange and I was hesitant at first, but I am so immensely thankful that I did go, because it changed my world -- it opened my world. And then when I came back from exchange, I carried that attitude forward and took every opportunity that came my way, which I think is a good approach in life.
So, what are you doing with yourself now?
I’m in my third and final year of my undergraduate degree and I absolutely love it. I truly love attending my university. Interestingly enough, I had actually planned to do my undergraduate studies in Germany, which is one of the reasons I went back to Europe when I finished Year 12, but I didn’t meet their prerequisite requirements. Over there, for the course I wanted to take, I needed to have studied a science subject in Year 12, but I hadn’t. So, they told me to head back to Australia and take up a science subject at uni for a semester, and then move back to Germany. As it turned out, I enrolled at ACU in Melbourne and fell in love with the place.
Once I complete my degree, I want to focus on a career where I get to work in international politics or international relations. Obviously, the workforce is constantly changing, and careers constantly change but that’s what I’m thinking at this stage.
Tom, thanks for your time.