There was not a cap or gown in sight, but for 60 Indigenous students, Monday’s NRL School to Work graduation was much more than a ceremony.
For most of those graduating, finishing school or completing further education and training was not an option they considered before they entered the program.
The School to Work initiative has been running for six years and was started when the Canterbury Bulldogs, Parramatta Eels, Penrith Panthers and Wests Tigers joined forces with the federal government to address education challenges facing Indigenous students.
The program has achieved a 99 per cent success rate of graduates transitioning into further education or sustainable employment.
“The graduates today are our leaders of tomorrow and our rugby league community will continue to assist and back these Indigenous students and many more that come through the program as they forge their own pathways in the world,” the NRL’s general manager of Indigenous strategy Mark Deweerd said.
Graduating student Matthew Lowe said the program kept him in study and out of mischief.
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” he said.
“If I didn’t end up here I’m not sure what I’d be doing. I definitely wouldn’t be as happy as I am now.”
Lowe is currently completing a full-time traineeship with Qantas.
“Sometimes I think this is all a dream,” he said.
“I think I’ll wake up and be back in grade 10 with bad grades and then I have that moment of clarity and I remember ‘no, this is my job, this is me now’ and I couldn’t be happier.”
Only around half of Indigenous students in New South Wales go onto complete their higher school certificate.
Current year 12 student Blake Griffith is currently working as a trainee baggage handler with Qantas while studying for his HSC.
Since the ABC spoke to him last year, he has been named the organisation’s trainee of the year, beating out over 100 employees for the top honour.
He said the School to Work program has set him up for life.
“I’m doing my traineeship and hopefully will then get an internship with Qantas,” he said.
“I also want to go to university and study health science.”
Griffith will graduate from the School to Work program next year.