Clarissa Atkinson, Class of 2021

Clarissa Atkinson started Year 7 at GVGS in 2016 after receiving a Social Justice scholarship funded by Helen Mcpherson Smith Trust. “I really enjoyed art, as well as english and biology. I loved having the opportunity to explore my options at GVGS. I didn’t really make a decision about what I wanted to do at university until close to the end of Year 12 though and I wanted to be an archaeologist or crime scene investigator before I finally settled on zoology,” Clarissa says. “The school was very supportive when I was changing my mind about the classes I wanted to take in VCE. A week into starting chemistry in Year 11 I decided I wanted to do psychology and the school helped me to make that change. They let me create my own path towards what I wanted to do.” Clarissa is the first person in her immediate family to finish VCE, and one of few people in her extended family to have plans to pursue tertiary education. “By going to GVGS, I hope I’m setting a good example to my younger cousins, as well as other indigenous people, to focus on their education because of the opportunities it provides,” she says.

Driven by her desire to explore her own culture, Clarissa has been involved in many indigenous events while at GVGS, including the Junior Buroinjin Team, Bangarra Dance Theatre Workshop and Yakapna Assembly Committee. Clarissa commenced the Ganbina Youth Leadership Program in 2019. “I was really shy before I started the program and I would never really speak up in a group setting, but now I have the skills and confidence to be able to express myself and talk in front of a crowd,” Clarissa says. “The program has helped me develop as a person, they do a good job at helping us explore connections and we get to know more about the Indigenous educational opportunities that are available. Earlier this year we went to the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary in Queensland, but it was extra beneficial to me because I want to study zoology or animal conversation at uni.”

Throughout the pandemic, Clarissa struggled to stay motivated while undertaking virtual leaning from home. “Repeatedly going in and out of lockdown made it hard for me to form a strong work ethic, but my teachers were very understanding about how we were all feeling,” Clarissa says. “In Year 11, I had reached out to my tutor because I was finding learning from home difficult and she helped connect me with the School counsellor. He helped me understand more about why I was struggling and gave me strategies to help me cope. I felt anxious about submitting my work because normally I could speak to the teacher privately after class if I had questions, but over Zoom it wasn’t as easy. He made me realise that no one will judge me for speaking up if I need help because we’re all in the same situation and we’re all here for the same reason, to get the best out of our education.”

Staying connected with her friends was also a challenge, as chatting with her peers was often via the same medium she used all day for schooling. “At the beginning we were face timing and messaging each other on social media, but eventually I started to associate talking to my friends with virtual learning so it made me want to reach out less after a full day of looking at a screen for classes,” Clarissa says. “During the scattered times we got to come back to school, it made me appreciate the time I got to spend with my friends face-to-face.”

After almost two full years of being away from the traditional classroom, Clarissa says she is stronger and more resilient for it. “Even though it was really hard, we had to push through and get it done. You just had to think about the future and you had to move past this temporary pain,” she says. “Looking towards what was ahead of me made me so hopeful. I knew when I graduated I would be able to have a gap year do what I wanted to do, the future was bright and I knew that was coming.”

In 2022, Clarissa is looking forward to travelling and doing some groundwork before chasing her dream of studying zoology at university in 2023. “I want to volunteer at Kyabram Fauna Park and I’ve recently completed my Level 2 First Aid course because that’s one of the requirements to be eligible for volunteering,” she says. “Next year, I’m planning on taking a gap year and travelling up to Queensland with my friend. I want to get away and have some fun experiences before I head off to uni.” Clarissa is tossing up between relocating to either Melbourne or Geelong and undertaking a Bachelor of Science majoring in Zoology at Monash University or Deakin University after her 12 month break. “Eventually, I’d love to have a job working in wildlife conservation, either with native Australian animals or working overseas helping critically endangered animals like the Orangutans in Indonesia. I’m really excited to travel and learn about other cultures too. I am keen to explore other countries that have rich and diverse histories.”

For the Class of 2022, Clarissa encourages them to stay focused on the bigger picture when times get tough. “Remember to count your achievements, however small they are, because they’re what add up at the end of the day,” she says. “Even if you don’t think you’re doing well, if you follow the right path and work hard, you’re always going to end up doing something right.”