Studying for a Bachelor degree at university in Australia is a great achievement for anyone. But it is even greater for someone who starts out in life as a refugee and does not even start learning English until the age of 12.

Now 24, Joyce Odokopira is on the second year of a Bachelor of Social Work at Griffith University’s Logan Campus. In recognition of her efforts, Joyce has been lucky enough to receive a Scholarship this week, from local law firm Turner Freeman.

After her parents passed away in the civil war in South Sudan, an eight year old Joyce — along with three sisters and one of her sisters’ young children — were taken to a refugee camp in Kenya. The group lived there for four years.

“I was pretty young but I know it was a pretty rough place to live with very harsh conditions. I remember that people were desperate to leave and board the planes that took people to Australia. Every day my eldest sister, Evelyne would scan the lists of people that had been selected to go. After many disappointments, we finally saw our surname on the list. We were overjoyed to be starting a new life in Australia but had no idea exactly where we would be taken.”

The group eventually touched down in Brisbane in December 2003 and were provided with housing in the local suburb of Greenslopes.

“I was sent to a school for refugees, but as my English was pretty much non-existent and I had never had any formal education, it was a really hard slog. Speaking wasn’t too bad after a while, but my writing was really embarrassing!”

Eventually Joyce was transferred to Sunnybank High School where she managed to make enough progress to receive an OP and enrol in a TAFE Diploma in nursing.

“I really wanted a job where I would be caring for people in some way, but with nursing I soon found out that I hated blood! I ended up leaving the course and taking a break to stay with one of my sisters in Perth. When I came back I got onto another TAFE program in Community Services.”

The turning point

It was the turning point that Joyce needed. “I had a really fantastic lecturer who told me that I was good enough to go to university and study social work if I wanted. I was keen on the idea but worried that university was only for really smart people — not people like me!”

Joyce started her four year undergraduate study at Logan in 2013 and hasn’t looked back.

“When I got accepted, it gave me so much confidence to finally believe in myself and realise how far I have come,” she says. “Now I have a chance to complete my degree and give back to the community — maybe by working with refugees or \ in child protection. These are areas close to my heart.

“Mostly, I am deeply thankful to my sisters who have given me so much love and support in helping me achieve my dreams.”

John Vandeleur of the Logan office of Turner Freeman Lawyers said the firm was honoured to partner with Griffith to help Joyce continue with her undergraduate studies.

“We want to give something back to the local community that supports us, and empowering people to study higher education right here in Logan is a fantastic way for Turner Freeman to do that. We’re looking forward to seeing our scholarship recipients succeed in their chosen careers,” he says.