It will be a special moment for Kamilaroi man James Dries when he graduates with a Science degree at the University of New England's December graduation this week.
Born and raised in Gunnedah, tertiary education wasn't part of James's plans. He had to find a job after completing Year 10 at St. Mary's Catholic School.
Perhaps something in the family tradition of working with horses. His grandfather, Jimmy Dries, was a well-known Aboriginal jockey recognised in John Maynard's book Aborigines and the 'Sport of Kings': Aboriginal Jockeys in Australian Racing History.
James joined Fire and Rescue NSW after school but recently concluded it was a young person's game.
"My job is very labour intensive at times and while I enjoy it, I'm not getting younger. If I wanted to move on, I had to keep my options open and invest in skills that were transferable in a general market," James said.
James took the plunge and enrolled in his first degree, a Bachelor of Exercise and Sports Science, at the University of New England.
"I was the first in my family to attend university, but once I learned how study and university processes worked, I realised I had a knack for learning. I graduated with a distinction last year."
At UNE, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students also participate in the Oorala Aboriginal Centre's Indigenous Sashing Ceremony where graduates receive sashes to acknowledge culture and celebrate achievement.
"It was a very special moment for me," James said. "I gave my sash to my father as he was too ill to attend. He and my mother are very proud of what I have achieved at UNE.
"The sash also honours my grandmother's sacrifice for her children and grandchildren. Her family disowned her when she met my grandfather, yet they went on to have eight children together. My father was the second eldest, and had a terrible motorcycle accident when he was just 25. Naturally my grandmother was there for him throughout his extended recovery.
"While we were not well-off growing up, my parents always spent a lot of time with us, and made many sacrifices, as most parents do.
"My fiancée Lisa has also been extremely supportive of me throughout my studies."
James credits tertiary education with boosting his confidence in himself.
"University is quite challenging at the start, especially after being out of school for so long, but once you have systems in place it is not necessarily about how smart you are but about how hard you work."
"For me it is not just about obtaining a piece of paper from my studies, but about the knowledge. I have a genuine passion for and interest in what I'm learning."
James regularly helps at UNE's intensive schools, and is a point of contact for new students. During 2019, he was a mentor in the inaugural Indigenous Scholars/TRACKS Peer Support Program run by the Oorala Aboriginal Centre.
James plans to enrol in a Masters by Research next year, and wants to continue to share his experience with other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in Oorala's mentorship program.
James will receive his Bachelor of Science degree and a Vice-Chancellor's Scholar award for outstanding academic achievement at UNE's December graduation this week.