Ashlea Kunowski: From City Slicker to Country Kid

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Ashlea Kunowski

Television Reports with Nine News, Australia

From Kyabram in the Goulburn Valley, but now calls Wodonga home.

Ashlea Kunowski was 12-years-old when she became a ‘country kid’. Until then, she had lived in the suburbs of Melbourne and had never really experienced ‘country life’ and the things that go with it, like swimming in rivers, stinking hot Summers and having ‘room for a pony’ in one’s own backyard.  

When Ashlea moved to the country it was to the rural town of Kyrabram; about half an hour from Shepparton in Victoria’s Goulburn Valley region. Her arrival in the town, and at the local school, was a bit of a novelty for her peers who weren’t used to city-slickers turning up out of the blue. But it was also a challenging transition and, at times, quite a lonely experience for Ashlea, her sister and even their parents. It turns out, moving to the country can be quite isolating, no matter your age, because country folk can be as ‘close-knit’ as they’re made out to be.

On the flip side, the Kunowski family’s shift to greener pastures was equally met with some scepticism from friends left behind in the Big Smoke. To them, the very notion of leaving city lights for wide open paddocks was a bit cute and curious at the same time. But for Ashlea and her family it was the start of an adventure and the beginning of a love for the country – even if it did present some challenges, such as isolation and periodic boredom.

Fast forward to adulthood and Ashlea, now aged 28, firmly identifies as a ‘country girl’, living and working as a television reporter in the regional city of Albury Wodonga. To become a roving reporter, she initially studied journalism at Monash University in Melbourne, but then withdrew and continued her studies via online correspondence. For Ashlea – like so many country kids -- the challenge of moving away from home was just far too difficult, or rather, far too expensive. Still, determined to achieve her career goal, Ashlea forged ahead with her own path to journalism, where we pick up our chat with Ashlea Jane Kunowski – our Victorian Rural Inspire Mentor for July.

 So, Ashlea, you started your degree in Melbourne but then you switched and studied remotely – can you talk us through that period of time and how you came to your decision?

Sure. So, I was accepted at Monash University in Caulfield, to study Bachelor of Arts (Journalism). I’m not sure why, but I did really have my heart set on studying at Monash. However, once I actually started university I was travelling between Melbourne and Kyabram each and every week, heading home at every opportunity, because I couldn’t afford to live on campus and had to board at a house out of the city. I liked living there but it made it hard to settle into uni life. The end result was that I wore myself out. I came down with the shingles and glandular fever within the space of six months; I was so worn-down and unhappy. While trying to recuperate I decided to switch and study remotely, enabling me to move back home to Kyabram, and I picked-up a part time job in the marketing department of a local financial institution. It was through my contacts in this job that I eventually picked-up my first internship with WIN News in Shepparton.

Do you remember when you decided you wanted to become a journalist?

I must admit, it wasn’t until the last few months of Year 12 that I decided to pursue journalism. At the time I was really torn, and choosing my future career weighed heavily on my mind. It was actually one of my friends who pointed out how much I’d always enjoyed English and suggested I pursue something in that field. And then, as simple as that, I applied for the course at Monash and I was accepted. At that stage, I didn’t really have ambitions to be a TV reporter, but after completing my first internship at WIN News, I decided it was the medium for me. It was so fast-paced, exciting and dynamic – it was a thrill. I think some things are just meant to be.

Rewinding back further, what kind of student were you, and what did you want to do before journalism?

I took my studies quite seriously. Even from the age of 12 I went about picking my subjects in the hope it would lead to a job as a vet or zoologist because that’s what I thought I wanted to be, then. As a student I would easily get stressed about tests, and would be disappointed if I was graded lower than an ‘A’. However, as I moved through the year levels, my passion for language and literature became more apparent and l began to really focus my attention there.

Did any of your teachers inspire you along the way?

Yes, there are some teachers who stand out in my mind. There was a maths teacher in my middle years, a politics teacher in VCE, as well as my French teacher. At times, I tended to get on better with my teachers than my peers -- I enjoyed being able to have more serious and thought-provoking conversations with them. However, on the flip side, I felt the education system and, particularly, the enthusiasm of some teachers was really lacking. Those teachers certainly didn’t inspire me.


What was it like moving to Kyabram P-12 College?

We moved to Kyabram towards the end of Year Seven. I was 12 at the time, and I longed for a place to keep my pony, so I was happy to make the move but, educationally, I don’t think it was an ideal time to move. The school in Kyabram was a lot bigger than the small, private Christian school I went to in Cranbourne, so it took a bit of adjusting. Fortunately, making friends wasn’t so hard in the beginning because, being from ‘the city’, I was a sort-of novelty to the other country kids. Having said that, teenage girls are quite fickle, and throughout high school I found myself drifting between a few social groups. I tended to spend more time with the boys because they were just easier to get along with. I definitely didn’t love high school. I felt like I always had to prove myself to my peers, which I think is a real country thing, but I also think that’s why I was so determined to go forth in life and succeed.

From memory, how did you find the shift from life in the city to life in the country?

I remember having to adjust to the hot Summers in Kyabram, which were much more intense than in Melbourne. My friends and family, still living in Melbourne, seemed to think we were living in the outback, and didn’t have a clue about life in regional or rural communities. Our life was a novelty to them. I remember that it was harder to stay entertained in the country because things like the cinemas were at least half an hour away, in Echuca and Shepparton, with less public transport and so forth. There was a theatre in Kyabram but it only showed movies several months after their initial release – things like that were so different to the city. Still, my sister and I really embraced our new rural life and I loved that I finally had a place to keep my pony. And I loved that I could go swimming in rivers and channels for the first time in my life and I could join the local pony and netball clubs. It was a different life altogether to the one I had lived in Cranbourne. For my parents, I think the transition was harder. For them, it was difficult living and finding work in a small, insular town of about 6000 people.


Do you think growing up in a rural area is an advantage or a disadvantage?

I think there are equally pros and cons for living in the country. I think the level of education, generally, wasn’t what it should have been. I also think it’s a given that entertainment tends to less forthcoming for kids than what you get living in Melbourne. Still, I think living in a small community has its advantages, such as the sense of community and the way I was able to build contacts who then helped me to get an internship with WIN News out of the goodness of their hearts. And then, living relatively ‘nearby’ to WIN News Shepparton enabled me to pick-up some freelance work, giving me my ‘foot in the door’, which I may not have got if I was living in the city.

So, are you proud of living in the country as a teenager?

I think, in the early days, I felt like an outsider. But, my career focus and interests outside of school and work distracted me from feeling too much that way. I think moving to the country from an early age protects you from being treated too much like an “outsider” but that’s not quite the case for adults. After leaving school, I learned people moving to the Kyabram area, professionally, tended to feel quite isolated, excluded and alone.

Considering your path through tertiary education, do you think there should be greater government assistance to help rural students to attend university?

Yes, absolutely! It’s a must. But I also think there needs to be more done to communicate the many avenues and opportunities available for country students. I had no idea about some of the assistance that was available until it was too late.


If you could change one thing about our education system, what would it be?

I wish there was some way to weed-out the teachers who aren’t dedicated to the job and their students. I think there are far too many teachers who stay in the job past their time, when they’ve lost sight of the critical role that they must play in shaping the lives of kids. Those teachers are certainly a detriment to the system and it’s not fair, particularly in the country, where students have less opportunity to switch teachers or schools, if necessary.


Okay. Heading back to the future, tell us about what you’re doing with your life now?

Well, after working my way from a Grade One journalist to a Bureau Chief in Shepparton, I decided I’d like to make the move from WIN to Nine News. For the first time, Nine News was rolling-out regional newsrooms, and I decided I wanted to be a part of it. I’ve since been working in Albury for the past two-and-a-bit years, and it’s enabled me to do live crosses for our regional news bulletins and, more recently, for the Today Show. It’s pretty exhilarating! Since being on the Border, I’ve also discovered a passion for ballroom dancing, after competing in the 2018 Dance for Cancer, where I also learned how hard it is to raise charity.

Ashlea, thanks for your time.