A scholarship set up by Mildura alumni is helping rural students overcome the tyranny of distance
When Toby Sheahan finished his final semester exam last year at the University of Melbourne there was no time for celebration. He jumped in his car and drove three hours to reach his family’s farm in northwest Victoria.
It was harvest season. Toby, the second eldest of six children, was needed on the farm at Dumosa, 20 kilometres north of Wycheproof in the flat, dry grasslands of the Mallee.
Everyone in the Sheahan family is expected to help out on the 5000-hectare property, especially during the annual wheat harvest.
The 20-year-old student is a recipient of the Mildura Alumni Scholarship Fund, established in 2005 by a group of alumni from the University of Melbourne’s former Mildura campus.
The Mildura residential campus operated from 1942 to 1949 at a former RAAF base. It offered courses in the faculties of medicine, architecture, engineering, science and dental science.
The campus’ alumni set up the scholarship fund to help support rural students who live within a 250 kilometre-radius of Mildura and attend the University of Melbourne.
Toby first heard about the scholarship in Year 12 at Wycheproof P-12 College. His high school teachers had encouraged him to apply for scholarships because of the extra financial burden that rural students face when they move to the city to start tertiary courses.
Thanks to the collective generosity of the Mildura alumni donors, the scholarship has made it easier for Toby to make that transition and commit to his degree.
“I’m really grateful to have been chosen for the scholarship because it’s allowed me to focus on my studies a lot more,” he says.
“It’s meant I haven’t had to do as much part-time work while I’m studying in Melbourne. In my first year of uni I had a part-time job working late nights from 8 to midnight testing computer leads in NAB banks. But the hours were really tiring.”
During each semester he often drives the 288-kilometre trip home to help his family on their sheep, grain and pig farm. The piggery in particular is labour intensive, with the pigs requiring daily feeding and care.
To help cover his travelling costs to and from Melbourne, as well as some living expenses, Toby cuts firewood in summer after harvest time and sells it during the year. The scholarship helps pay for most of his accommodation costs and other basic necessities. “It’s been a tremendous help,” he says.
He intends to pursue a career in agriculture after he completes his degree, returning to the farm to help his parents grow the family business. “My old man is getting on a bit and he’s not as quick as he used to be,” says Toby.
“Over the past 10 years our farm has survived through changing environments, including severe droughts, flooding, mouse plagues and locusts. Despite all these hardships my passion for agriculture has remained unchanged.”
Toby says the Mildura Alumni Scholarship has enabled him to pursue his dreams.
One day down the track I’d like to help people in the same way that the scholarship has helped me.
“Without the generosity of the Mildura alumni donors I wouldn’t have been able to pursue my aspirations to graduate from the University and enter the field of agriculture.”