We’re always in danger of “leaving people behind”

Pictured: Fairless Works Steel Mill. Photograph supplied by Fred D'Agostino

Pictured: Fairless Works Steel Mill. Photograph supplied by Fred D’Agostino

I grew up in the Fifties in a steel town midway between New York and Philadelphia. My parents had lived through the Depression and the Second World War. Neither had a university education. But both were committed to my sister and me having that opportunity and made a lot of sacrifices to ensure that it actually happened. As it transpired, I had an excellent university experience, including post-graduate work and a forty-year career as an academic. A couple of years ago, I travelled back to that town to attend the fiftieth reunion of my high school class. By that time the steel mill had been closed for thirty years and nothing had replaced it as an employer of choice. The old pattern was broken – no more sons following fathers into the mill to enact high-wage, good-conditions, union-protected labour that conferred dignity and security. One outcome of that weekend was a lot of new Facebook “friends”, so that, over the past two years, I’ve been reading a social media stream of political commentary. People I grew up with were enthused by Donald Trump’s candidacy this year. They saw Trump’s ideas as an answer to a question that other politicians had ignored for thirty years … namely, what comes next after the mill closes? So it may not surprise you to learn that I was predicting, on the basis of this unscientific sample, a Trump electoral victory for most of 2016 and hence wasn’t at all surprised when that actually happened. What all this shows is, of course, a matter of wide discussion, analysis, puzzlement, and even garment-ripping. Something that I think it shows is: You can’t leave people behind, as the people in my mill town were left behind, and expect them to thank you for stewarding the structural transformation of the economy … and, indeed, the culture.

We’re always in danger of “leaving people behind”. But after the Second World War, in the United States, the so-called GI Bill meant that ex-service personnel could attend universities when, but for that option, that might never have been possible for them. A deliberate policy was enacted to deliver the “fruits of victory” to many of those whose work has produced it. The subsequent success of the economy and indeed the polity was built, among other things, on precisely that “new generation” of university-educated community and industry leaders … of people who weren’t “left behind”.

And that’s what we’ve got to remember always at the University. There are people, in our communities, who could benefit from university education, but for whom it might be out of reach – out of reach financially or imaginatively or culturally or whatever. If we leave them behind, no one will be better off in the long run. And that’s the recognition that’s at the heart of my very favourite thing about the University of Queensland … its Young Achievers Program.

The Young Achievers Program (‘Yap’) is a product of philanthropy. And, as always with the best philanthropy, there is more than money involved. In this case, there is great imagination and vision. How can we provide opportunities to young people with the potential to benefit from university education but whose circumstances might put that out of reach? I won’t rehearse all the details, except to say that so far we’ve put about 800 high school students through the program, which extends over years 11 and 12, and many of them have come to uni, prospered here, and a few dozen have already graduated and are pursuing careers. They “give back” themselves during their participation in the program, so they’re already primed with the philanthropic perspective before they even arrive at uni. It is, in all likelihood, going to be a self-sustaining circle of receiving and giving. I have been a proud participant, in various roles, for the last five years or so. I urge others to get on board. We need about $30,000 per student to fund the scholarships they receive. It’d be lovely to make an endowment gift to support the program in perpetuity.

For more information on the Young Achievers Program, follow this link.

Self-portrait, by Professor Fred D'Agostino

Self-portrait, by Professor Fred D’Agostino

Fred D’Agostino is Professor of Humanities and President of the Academic Board at The University of Queensland.