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September 21, 2023

Mission possible: Taking a different path into uni

How do you get into uni when you’ve missed all of high school or don’t have an ATAR? UniSA offers a supportive pathway for everyone.

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  • This article was produced in collaboration with the University of South Australia.
  • Artwork: Thomas Folber, Eidetic, 2021. Photo of Tom: Peri Strathearn

Getting a degree is a big deal. Getting a PhD is an even bigger deal. Doing it when you didn’t go to high school is a story worth telling…

On his first day on campus at the University of South Australia (UniSA), Tom Folber realised he was “not that special”. He was 25, had missed all of high school due to anxiety, and spent the previous four years working in a bookshop.


Find out about UniSA College here.

“I was walking in feeling like I didn’t belong there and it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t the case,” Tom shares.

“When you start to talk to other students, you realise you’re not that special. Lots of people have gone through things in their life, and in a way that stuff doesn’t matter now.”

At that early stage, he didn’t have any definite goals beyond completing the Foundation Studies program at what is now UniSA College at the City West Campus.

“I wanted to try something and see if I could do it. I was interested in learning.”

Trust the process seems a pretty obvious piece of advice, but Tom says doing so made it easier for him to settle into university. “The teaching staff say, ‘these are the courses, this is what you need to do. If you follow those instructions, you can do it’.”

He was pleasantly surprised by the safety net of free support offered to students to help them succeed, including counselling, study workshops, mentors, regular check-ins with academic staff and tailored study plans.

“I guess we grow up in a society where sometimes schooling is inflexible and not a great experience for a lot of people.

“My initial experience of UniSA College was just how supportive it was – realising everyone is on your side and wants you to do well.

“The lecturers were really great, super approachable and friendly. And the coursework itself was stimulating and diverse – there was a whole bunch of things I could study.”

Foundation Studies is a tuition fee-free program aimed at people who want to study at university, but don’t meet the standard entry requirements. They may have just finished high school, but didn’t graduate with an ATAR or one high enough for their preferred degree. Or they may be older and keen to return to study, or just wanting to test whether university is right for them.

For those living regionally, the course is also offered at UniSA’s Mount Gambier and Whyalla campuses, while for people identifying as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, UniSA College’s Aboriginal Pathway program offers another pathway option to a degree.

Contemplating university studies can be daunting and Tom says for him it seemed like a big risk as he felt “ancient”. He landed on campus with a “serious mindset” and an eye for how much study and hard work it would entail.

“I think most surprising was just how much fun it was,” Tom says. “I wasn’t expecting that because I was just thinking about the work.

“I made lots of new friends and spent hours just having interesting, challenging discussions, which is really quite precious. You don’t get to do that a lot in your working life necessarily. Hanging out in cafés and stuff during work hours is fun.”

Foundation Studies is the starting point for pathways to further study – leading to either an undergraduate certificate or diploma qualification and then onto a bachelor’s degree at UniSA. Getting into a high-demand degree, such as Physiotherapy, Occupational Therapy, Medical Radiation Science or Midwifery, is possible by following the diploma pathway, dependent on the student’s Grade Point Average (GPA).

“Once I worked out that I could manage university studies and it was going well, that’s when I started to think a bit more about what I should pursue,” says Tom, who chose to study a Bachelor of Visual Arts, now titled the Bachelor of Contemporary Art.

“I just wanted to keep learning. I’ve got a curious mind and found it quite easy to fall in love with the different subjects and get stuck into them.

“Had I come straight out of high school and gone into uni, I’d probably be having itchy feet to get out into the working world. But because I had experienced that – and it wasn’t that great – I was really valuing what university was and enjoying it.”

While there weren’t practical art subjects within Foundation Studies, he says all the skills he developed, including critical writing, research and study skills, were transferable to his Visual Arts degree and set him up for further success.

The bachelor’s degree led to an Honours degree and then, in August of this year, he was awarded his PhD. He has just finished showing his solo exhibition Artefacts from the Black Box at SASA Gallery, building on his growing body of digital artworks.

It has been a marathon 13-year effort, but Tom says he didn’t want to waste the opportunities when they arose – even though it meant overcoming another bout of imposter syndrome early in his PhD studies, when he again questioned whether he belonged at university.

“It really comes from not having done high school – it’s a stigma that I attached to myself,” Tom says.

“But you realise you have to start listening to the people around you. And they’re all saying you do belong here. You’re doing a great job. So, at some point, you have to trust the experts. Give yourself a break.”

Part of how he dealt with the inner voices was to push himself harder and he says “in a way, I instrumentalised that to my benefit, and it did help me”.

Since 2015, Tom’s also been on the other side of the desk, tutoring each new intake of students at UniSA College.

“I really understand their position and I think it’s made me a good tutor,” he says while reflecting on his own experience.

Even now, he is consistently surprised at how caring and engaging the UniSA lecturers, tutors and staff have been during his own studies.

“I felt so lucky along the way to have such a supportive environment. It does feel a bit like a second chance, or at least in my case it did.”

Asked to sum up the learning journey on the way to receiving his PhD, Tom says “it’s been a privilege”.

“If you’re willing to put in the work, everyone’s there to help you succeed.”

Explore your UniSA College pathway to university in 2024 here.

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