Kat de Jong – 2012 recipient of the Walter and Eliza Hall Scholarship
In 2010, University of Sydney student Kat de Jong came down with a mystery illness that forced her to put her Bachelor of Social Work research honours program on hold. She spent three months in hospital fighting what was later discovered to be connective tissue damage.
Previously a very energetic person, Kat could now hardly walk up a flight of stairs, and had difficulty with basic cognitive functions. “For three years I had daydreamed about what area I’d do postgraduate study in,” she says. “But now I only had nightmares about what would become of me and what future I could have, if any.”
What was worse was that during her hospitalisation, Kat’s father was diagnosed with terminal lung, bone and brain cancer. In the short six weeks between his diagnosis and death, he spent only one week at home. By the time Kat was released from hospital, her father was in a coma and she was unable to say goodbye.
“After I got out of hospital, I was a shell of a person,” she says. “It is only because of the support of my mum, who herself was suffering the loss of her husband, that I survived and eventually restarted some weekly university classes.”
Though mostly recovered, Kat’s chronic illness has left her with ongoing challenges. She suffers from severe arthritic pain and greatly decreased strength and energy. This means she must find ways to manage her energy levels throughout the day.
“The things that some people take for granted are luxuries for me. I have to weigh up decisions like: if I borrow a textbook from the library, am I going to have the energy to return it on time? If I eat breakfast at home, can I get enough sleep to function? If I see friends on the weekend, will I be able to go to work on Monday?”
Kat was also under financial strain, as her pension was insufficient to cover the travel costs incurred by her social work placement at Hoxton Park Community Health Centre.
In an effort to alleviate some of the pressure, Kat applied for the Walter and Eliza Hall Trust Scholarship to help with the costs for her fourth year of study. To her amazement, she was successful. “I was awarded $6000 which is almost more money than I’ve ever seen in my life.”
The financial assistance had a profound impact. “I’m able to save my strength for study by buying, rather than borrowing, the textbooks I need,” she explains. “I can get enough sleep at home and eat a healthy breakfast at the work café. I can also see my friends and have a degree of social inclusion, which I never had before.”
Academically she is also thriving. In the first semester of her fourth year, she achieved a Distinction average.
“The money has helped in ways I never thought possible. Now that I have the financial support I need to achieve my goals, I once again have dreams for the future,” she says.
The Walter and Eliza Hall Scholarships for undergraduate social work students were established in 2008. The purpose of these scholarships is to ensure that financial difficulty does not stand in the way of a person’s ability to achieve their maximum potential in terms of a formal tertiary education.