From teenage runaway to straight-A graduate - University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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From teenage runaway to straight-A graduate

25 Sep 2019

Pregnant and packing a car with her infant son and her belongings was a turning point for Melissa Bartels, who this week graduates from USC with a perfect academic record.

The 36-year-old from Maroochydore will graduate tomorrow with a Bachelor of Criminology and Justice with a perfect Grade Point Average of 7.

She will also be presented with a University Medal for academic excellence at a ceremony on Thursday, 10am at Matthew Flinders Performance Centre.

“I was a runaway at 13. I came from such a good family, so I was a rebel without a cause in the truest form,” Melissa said.

“I wasted a large part of my youth messing around with the wrong people and a series of incredibly bad decisions saw me enter the realm of domestic violence and abuse, which I am too aware that some people do not ever escape.”

Her life changed the day she decided to leave Melbourne in a car packed with all her belongings and drove two days back to family on the Sunshine Coast, after being away from home for 10 years. Her son Elias, 5, was a toddler at the time, and she was pregnant with Christian (4). Her daughter Mia stayed behind in safe care.

“It took me a year to pick up the pieces and properly glue myself back together. By then I had new baby and a real and thorough understanding that the world was my oyster,” said Melissa, who has both Australian and Sri-Lankan heritage.

“I realised I could have any future I wanted, and I did what I always should have done. I enrolled in university and it changed my life.”

She said persistence, structure and dedication were vital to her study success, as well as listening to every lecture a second time, often while driving the kids to care.

“It is what we do, what we think and what we feel, after adversity that is truly defining. It is how we move on, past the darkness and into the light,” she said.

“Maybe that’s why USC’s ‘rise and shine’ slogan resonated with me so deeply. I would drive past the billboard on the Sunshine Motorway many times a week. And each time I would read it, I would smile and nod. Rise, and shine. Yes I will, I would think to myself.”

Though Melissa graduates on Thursday, the pressure is not off, as she is now 10 weeks into a Bachelor of Psychology with plans to embed Honours study in Criminal Psychology.

“I wasted a large part of my youth messing around with the wrong people, and I want to understand why people do what they do,” she said.

“I’d like to work with either offenders or at-risk children. The pathways are very intertwined,” she said.

“There are people who had a huge and positive impact on me, the path I took and the choices I made, and I’d like to potentially be that person for someone else.” 

Melissa’s study was supported by community bursaries and scholarships from Graduate Women of Queensland, Zonta Mature Age Bursary and U3A Bursary.

Melissa will also receive one of six Student Leadership Awards at USC’s graduation ceremonies this week. The other recipients will be Rebecca Ledgard of Currimundi, Linda Gooch of Nambour, Todd Jones of Bli Bli, Stacie Barker of Kings Beach, and Jean Martha Degollacion of Kureelpa.

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