There were times last year when Taniela Afu never imagined he'd even finish his HSC, let alone go to university. But UNSW's ASPIRE Program, a social inclusion initiative that promotes tertiary education to students from low socio-economic backgrounds, gave him the confidence to stick with his studies and become the first in his family to make it to university.

"My parents never went to university so they're ecstatic," says Taniela who was accepted into the Diploma of Humanities, a program run by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, which provides an alternative pathway into university for students who have suffered educational disadvantage.

"I never thought about going to university until I took part in ASPIRE," says the 18-year-old. "The student ambassadors encouraged me to set goals and try harder at school, which really increased my confidence."

ASPIRE Project Manager, Fiona Nicholson, says it's inspiring to see the first group of students who were mentored through UNSW's program reach their goal of beginning a tertiary education.

"This is an incredible milestone and a great indication of how successfully students are engaging with the program," she says.

And Taniela isn't spending his first semester alone. His former classmate, Carol Fong, has started a BA Arts/BA Education, the result of hard work and some extra help from ASPIRE.

Both students attended Marrickville High School, one of the 11 schools taking part in the initiative.

"It's really comforting to know that I've got established contacts at UNSW with the program and that I can touch base with them whenever I need to," says Carol.

Twenty-three students who participated in ASPIRE gained entry into UNSW for 2010. A total of 188 students from affiliated schools were made offers to a NSW/ACT university this year.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) Professor Richard Henry says the innovative program has already attracted national attention despite being a relatively new initiative.

"We're delighted to be welcoming the first ASPIRE Program students to UNSW. Central to the program's success to date is the understanding that it's not lack of ability that prevents some students from gaining a tertiary qualification but low expectations and lack of confidence," he says.

"The program's expansion to primary schools recognises the need to boost aspirations much earlier in a student's life."

ASPIRE has grown rapidly since its inception in 2008 thanks to funding by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and Citi Foundation. More than 1,500 students - up from the inaugural intake of 340 - will take part in the program this year, including students from five metropolitan primary schools. Four rural schools will also take part in a pilot program outside the metropolitan area.

From the March/April issue of Uniken.

Media contact: Fran Strachan | 9385 8732 |