Growing up wasn’t as simple as most for Ilona. Born in Northern Ireland, she spent the first few years of her life moving around Europe, with her parents working in the military. After moving to Australia she began home schooling aged 7 to combat the constant moving, and started online distance education in 2017 after moving to a remote location. She is now studying psychology and hopes to bring her skills back to rural communities. Here is our 2023 Rising Star, Ilona Gray.
Congratulations on your CEF Alumni Award. How does it feel to be recognised as a CEF Alumni Award winner?
I was blown away when I received the news! I’m really happy that the Shoalhaven Education Fund has been recognised for the huge amount that it does to support the talented youth on the South Coast, and I personally, am honoured to be receiving the award.
Can you tell us a little about your life growing up? Your family, what your parents did for a living?
My childhood was full of change; I was born in Northern Ireland and moved around Europe frequently. I have three younger siblings – one sister (17), and twin brothers (14). My parents were in the military, which meant we had to move houses consistently; Sydney is the now the 12th place I’ve lived! Due to the constant education upheaval, I started home-schooling at age 7.
In 2017, I moved to a bush property in Australia; this was a huge cultural change for me. Due to the distance, I was then distance-educated online, via Finigan School of Distance Education in Queanbeyan. In terms of post-graduate education, both my parents have degrees, but I am the first in my family to follow a medical-related pathway.
What have been some of your greatest/proudest achievements to date?
Most recently, I’d say getting the marks for entry into UNSW Psychology (Honours), as my dream degree. I am very passionate about Psychology as a discipline, so this news was life changing. Before that, being awarded my AMEB diploma in Flute was a certification that I am very proud of, as it took many years of practice.
What do you like to do in your spare time? What are you passionate about?
I love to play music, both individually and as part of a group – I am in the UNSW Wind Ensemble during term time and when I go home in the holidays, I play with local ensembles such as the Milton Town Band, which is the oldest continuous band in Australia. I also enjoy physical activity, such as rugby, going the gym, running, and most recently, college sport (I have since learned I am not the best at basketball). In my spare time, I enjoy reading, and spending time in nature – one of my absolute favourite activities is hiking, to discover new pockets of beauty.
I am also passionate about volunteering, especially in my local community, whether this takes the form of community events, concerts, Surf Lifesaving, fundraising, or something different again. These various activities facilitate connections with others, and I feel very fortunate to be part of a close-knit community that looks out for each other. Since moving to Sydney, I have tried to facilitate this by volunteering as a college charity officer, floor officer, working with UNSW Volunteers United, and starting work with the Red Cross.
However, my biggest passion in life is Psychology and wellbeing. I’ve been fascinated by the medical field since before I can remember, but it was only a few years ago that I decided Psychology was the route for me. Since moving to UNSW, my love has only been further invigorated, and the more I learn, the more excited I am to further my education. I plan to become a clinical Psychologist and hope to give back to my community by practising in rural Australia; mental wellbeing is something that is so often overlooked, and I hope to make a difference in this area.
What do you remember most about receiving your grants from CEF? What did it mean to you? How did it help you?
I remember hoping for a small contribution towards a laptop. When my grant came through, it was much more generous than I had imagined and so my first thought was relief, quickly followed by enormous gratitude. The subsequent grants helped me massively – the scholarships from Audi Foundation and UNSW essentially supported my accommodation throughout much of the year.
How important is the work that CEF does in your opinion? Were there any CEF local foundation and or hometown community members who helped or mentored you?
Extremely important. It is so difficult for students from rural areas to get away to study. Most Australians live at home for their tertiary education, yet this is not an option for most rural children. The work that CEF does gives rural children hope, options and support – financial and emotional. I was not mentored, but someone incredible from SEF who has supported me this past year is Anne.
Do you live in a regional area now? Do you still feel a connection to country Australia? How important is it to give back to your local community?
At the moment I live in Sydney, on UNSW Campus, so I can attend lectures/labs/tutorials for my degree. In the holidays, I travel back to the South Coast to see my family and be part of my community – just in time for patrol season! I feel very close to my country and community, and I feel the distance has made me appreciate rural Australia even more. I am a strong believer that what goes around comes around. In my community, those around me have always strived to help others, and I aim to live by that mantra too.
What advice would you give to young students in the rural and regional areas who are unsure or worried about study after school?
I would say that there are many roads towards the same destination – one bad experience will not change everything. The most important thing is to keep your options open, make the most of all opportunities, and do your best. Don’t be afraid to ask for help!
What benefits do you think staying connected or reconnecting with the CEF Alumni Network can provide?
The CEF Alumni Network is comprised of many like-minded individuals who have experienced similar hurdles in their education and achieving their potential. Though all networks are valuable, I believe the CEF Alumni network is truly unique in its variety of individuals from similar backgrounds with desire a to achieve.
What is next for you?
Next year, I’ll be in my second year of university, and am looking forward to some fun neurology courses and hoping to work internships in my second trimester. I was lucky enough to attain research experience this year, and hope to extend this next year, within faculty, to learn as much as I can.
I was also recently selected for student ambassador and student peer mentor positions at UNSW, and SF for my college at university. These roles primarily focus on wellbeing, which is something I am extremely passionate about, so I am excited to see what I can gain from these roles, to develop my capacity as a psychologist. Aside from that, I will continue with the little things, and try to make the most of all the opportunities I can!