Paying it forward

Young alumni create scholarship opportunity for students

Five young graduates spoke to Julie-Ann Jeffery about how you can make a difference at any age.

It was a bold move by three students. An unprecedented first for the University of Wollongong. And it’s already in its fifth year.

The UOW Community Engagement Scholarship – Students of Law was established by students for students while they were still undergraduates.

Considering they were young, ambitious and competing for academic merit, their actions spoke of foresight and generosity.

“We saw ourselves as leaders, as future leaders, and we wanted to see a world that was about helping your neighbour,” says Thomas Mawson who graduated in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws (Hons).

It’s a personal philosophy shared by the trio that includes Bunmi Ogunbona and Darren Peterson. Bunmi graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Law at UOW and Peterson a Bachelor of Law (Hons) and Bachelor of International Studies, in 2013.

The three are now in the early stages of their careers. Thomas is an Associate at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, London. Ogunbona is working as a Business Development Executive at Grant Thornton International, London. And, Peterson is a lawyer at the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC).

“We wanted to acknowledge students who were committed to making a real difference in their community, and not just pad their resume,” Ogunbona says.

Whether that commitment was to a small local community or massive global tribe didn’t matter. What was paramount was the sense of sharing ideas, skills and talent with your community.

“When I was a kid I used to accompany my grandparents to Meals-On-Wheels,” Mawson says. “I witnessed first hand elderly people helping other elderly people and it left a positive impact on me.”

“Charitable work has always been important to me,” Ogunbona says. “I was super involved on campus and in the community while studying – volunteering my time to assist peers, helping at local charity events, working at orientation and future student engagement days – and I saw that a scholarship would help students who had something real to give to their community.”

“We also saw a gap in scholarships on offer,” Mawson says. “They were either for students with distinguished academic achievement or for students struggling to make ends meet.”

It would have been easy for the trio to dismiss the scholarship idea. Understandable for double degree students with limited money and time to make a difference. However, they approached the university anyway.

All three confirmed connection, contribution and community were vitally important in their undergraduate years.

“I believe it’s very Australian to want to help your neighbours and not talk about it,” Mawson says.

Meanwhile, two other young UOW finance graduates were sharing a beer in a London pub when their conversation turned to the same topic – giving back.

“It was simply a chat over a beer one day that got us thinking about giving back to our local community,” said Rene Ogunbona. “It’s not like we wanted our names on a building, we just wanted a way to contribute.”

Rene Ogunbona and Theo Savvas became friends during their years at UOW. In 2009, Rene completed a Bachelor of Mathematics and Finance while Savvas, now a qualified chartered accounted, completed a Bachelor of Commerce (Finance).

They established the UOW Illawarra Community Scholarship in Finance not long after graduating.

“To call us young philanthropists would be going a little far,” Ogunbona laughs. “It was just the most logical way for us to give back to UOW.”

“We looked at what we could give on many levels – time, money, energy, resources,” explains Savvas, who is Manager of Asset Management and Commercial Projects at AET in London. “At this stage of our lives it was clear creating a scholarship was the best way forward.”

Now in its third year, they’re keen to be part of the process in the future.

“Ultimately we’d like to be more involved, collaborate on mentoring students for example, but for now we’re happy to be part of the selection process,” Ogunbona says.

More than just having a desire to provide opportunities for other students, the pair has a collective good will, a long-standing friendship and an awareness of the benefits of contributing to community.

“I grew up in Sydney but my time at UOW helped shape me. I think the Illawarra is a beautiful, underrated part of the world,” Savvas says. “I really wanted to give back to a place that was important to me.”

“It all has an impact,” says Ogunbona about what a scholarship fund can do. “It works for you, it works for the student, it works for the university, and it works for your community.”

The scholarship recipients are a lively crew who’ve gone on to work in diverse communities. The 2015 recipient Parrys Raines has even been working on UN convoys and speaking panels.

These five young alumni have left a positive ripple that may be the start of something big to come. They’ve marked a shift in students acting collectively to help each other and make a difference now – not later.


Thomas Mawson
Bachelor of Arts (History) & Bachelor of Laws, 2013
Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice, 2013

Bunmi Ogunbona
Bachelor of Commerce (Public Relations) & Bachelor of Laws,

Darren Peterson
Bachelor of International Studies & Bachelor of Laws
(Hons), 2013

Rene Ogunbona
Bachelor of Mathematics & Finance, 2009

Theo Savvas
Bachelor of Commerce (Finance), 2009