Rhys Smith, wearing a blue graduation cap and gown, holds the University medal and smiles. Photo: Andy Zakeli

High-achieving history graduate reflects on tough road to finishing degree

High-achieving history graduate reflects on tough road to finishing degree

Rhys Smith awarded University Medal for outstanding academic performance

For Rhys Smith, the story of his degree has been crafted with more twists and turns than most.

So, when he stepped on stage at the University of Wollongong’s (UOW) graduation ceremony today (Tuesday 11 April), the moment held many emotions.

It was overwhelming and, at times, bittersweet to know how far he had come, and to know that his family, friends and lecturers were watching Rhys turn the page on this chapter of his life.

The truth is that Rhys never thought he would make it this far. But to understand the whole story, you must go back to the first page.

Born in Zambia, Rhys spent the first years of his life on the continent of Africa. The son of medical missionaries, with a father who is a doctor and a mother who is a physiotherapist, Rhys’s childhood memories were fond.

But that changed when the family moved back to Australia when Rhys was seven. Relocating to the South Coast of NSW, the family settled in Nowra, where Rhys attended school. He was strong academically, but bullying turned high school into a miserable experience.

“School was awful for me throughout. I was severely bullied all through primary school and high school and ended up changing schools in my later years of high school. Those experiences caused a lot of trauma that stayed with me for years.

“I really wanted to go to university, but I didn’t know how I would get there. At the time, I had not been diagnosed with ADHD, but once I was able to work out the patterns of study, I did well academically. I finished as Dux of my high school. But the bullying had left me with severe panic attacks and depression.”

After finishing high school, Rhys began a bachelor’s degree in history at a university in Canberra, but it was not the best path for him or for his health.

“I had really bad anxiety the whole time. I had panic attacks, I couldn’t sit down and do the work and focus. I couldn’t sit my final exams. I was completely melting down,” he said.

“I was convinced the world was out to get me. But in the end, my parents saved my life.”

He dropped out of that degree, and then, the following year, began a degree in nursing and paramedicine at a different university. Again, it was not the right place for him.

But after two attempts, Rhys moved back to the South Coast to live with his parents, where he would stay for the next few years. Rhys describes this time in his life, with utter honesty, as “very dark”. He was deep in anxiety and depression, could not work and could not study.

“My parents gave me a lot of space and a lot of support during those years.”

With the help of a “really good” team that included a psychiatrist, psychologist and GP, and after finally receiving a diagnosis of ADHD, Rhys began to claw his way out of the dark.

“I had been on anti-anxiety medications for years and it always felt like I was in this deep fog and for someone who relies on their brain, it was really difficult for me.

“But once I started treatment for ADHD, it changed everything. It was like the fog had lifted. I began working two jobs and I enrolled at UOW’s Shoalhaven Campus in 2018.”

Rhys Smith (centre), wears a blue graduation cap and gown and holds the University Medal. To his left is his mother. She wears a dress and red cardigan and smiles at the camera. To his right is his father. He wears a blue suit and smiles at the camera. Photo: Andy Zakeli

Rhys pictured with his parents on graduation day.

Undertaking a Bachelor of Arts (Deans Scholar) with a major in History and a minor in Philosophy, Rhys spent a semester at Shoalhaven before transferring to the Wollongong campus in search of a more active social life. It was here that he threw himself into his degree. After spending so many years in the dark, Rhys revelled in the light of the new life that he began to build for himself.

“I finally felt confident for the first time in my life. I’m a very social creature, so I got really involved in clubs and societies. I was the President of the Philosophy and History societies, I was a student representative on the Student Advisory Council, I was on the Faculty of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities’ Education Committee,” said Rhys, who also received the Cunningham D'Souza Family Scholarship while at UOW.

“As a student representative, I was part of the consultation process for designing the new Campus Clinic, which is something I was passionate about because of my own brutal anxiety and background in mental health. I really believe students should have access to the best possible care.

“I could finally work, and I could finally focus. I was that student that did every reading, that asked questions and asked for help with my writing. After I had failed out of two degrees, I never thought I would have the opportunity to come back and get a degree. I was just so grateful to be here.” 

Rhys’s hard work and dedication paid off. He was accepted into an Honours year of the Bachelor of Arts. His thesis focused on the role that masculinity plays in the far-right movement in former colonies in Africa. It received one of the highest marks ever in the history department.

“I’m really proud of it. I was working full time while completing my thesis [in a role at UOW], so I would get up at 4 am and spend three or four hours working on it before going to my job. I did that for months and I was exhausted, but when I found out my mark, I was so happy.

“There were moments when I wanted to quit, but that just made it all worth it. I also realised that I would love to do a PhD.

“History is the stories we tell about ourselves. It’s also being able to peer into people’s lives, which is a bit voyeuristic but also a privilege. I love history because you get to reach back through time, get to know someone, tease out someone’s motives, why they did what they did, and what they value.”

Rhys attributes his accomplishments to the support network he found in the faculty, in particular to his supervisor, Associate Professor Sharon Crozier De-Rosa and Dr Jen Roberts, who took Rhys under her wing. They were both integral in helping him to complete his thesis.

“It has been an absolute pleasure to see Rhys develop his confidence and skills as a historian throughout his time at UOW,” Dr Roberts said.

“His honours thesis was genuinely excellent, and I have no doubt he has a really bright future as an academic ahead of him. It was always a pleasure to have Rhys in my history classes”.

It is evident that Rhys’s hard work and sheer tenacity were the foundation of his success.

Ahead of the graduation ceremonies, Rhys found out he was one of the winners of the University Medal for his faculty, awarded to the students with the most outstanding academic performance.

“I just couldn’t stop crying when I found out about the University Medal,” Rhys said. “I never thought I would have a degree and that I would graduate, so it just makes the moment so much more special.”

Now based in Melbourne, Rhys is hoping to pursue a PhD in history. On the day of his graduation ceremony, he was joined by his parents and surrounded by his lecturers and peers. It was a day he thought would never arrive.

Rhys paid special tribute to his parents for their support in helping him to achieve his degree.

“It’s easy when you tell this story to make it sound like I did it all. But my parents were absolute part of this. They got the first shout-out in my thesis. They never gave up on me. I couldn’t have done it without them, without their constant love and support.

“This means everything to me. I am so grateful to be here.”