Phoenix College Dux shares experience of homelessness, hardship during Year 12:

Reflecting on her experiences and achievements during 2020, Alicia Mroz realises she can work through any hard times that come her way.

Ms Mroz returned to her former high school Phoenix P-12 Community College this week to collect an award for receiving the highest ATAR score in her year level last year. The official presentation and chance to re-connect with teachers was interrupted again by the snap COVID-19 lockdown, after restrictions on visitors to schools in January and her move to Queensland initially held up the Dux presentation.

Ms Mroz said finally receiving the award provided an opportunity for her to reflect on her experiences in 2020, including homelessness, separation from family and forced independence, all while juggling VCE.

“I haven’t talked about it in ages,” she said. “When you get to uni no one really asks about Year 12 because it is a fresh start for everyone, but it was good to reflect and remember I did that so I know I can do uni if there are any struggles, I can get through it.”

Ms Mroz was living with her mother and younger brother in a rental property during the beginning of her Year 12 year when the landlord gave the family 60 days notice to move out so he could sell the property.

“Things were falling apart but I was always thinking of the positives.”

While initially thinking it could be a good chance for her family to live closer to her school and in a nicer house, Mr Mroz said she soon realised why her mother was so upset about the eviction notice.

“The rental market is very competitive in Ballarat and every house she applied for she was rejected because she had a low income and there was a high renting demand,” she said. “That was something that was on the back of my mind during the start of school. It got to the end of the 60 days and we still hadn’t gotten a house. We had to pack up all of our stuff into a storage unit and we were basically homeless. This was all during a SAC time at school.”

Ms Mroz’s younger brother moved to live with his father while she and her mother spent two weeks living in her nan’s cramped unit in a retirement village while continuing the search for a rental property. “I studied for my SAC on a fold out couch and I ended up still getting 100 per cent on that. I felt like my love for school could get the better of any situation that I had thrown at me,” she said.

After weeks of searching, the only rental property her mother was able to secure was a one bedroom studio in Melbourne where she would live alone. Ms Mroz said she was grateful to be able to move in with her boyfriend’s family for the rest of the school year.

“My small household, me, my mum and my brother were all split up and I became legally independent a few weeks after my 17th birthday,” she said. “On top of that there was COVID which affected everyone in many ways but for me it meant I wasn’t able to see my mum for the rest of the year since she was in Melbourne.

“The rest of my family lives all over the place so I didn’t get to see them either and I also had a family member who was passing away who I didn’t get to visit and attend the funeral because of border restrictions.”

Remote learning was an added struggle. Ms Mroz was not able to fulfil her plans for her role as school vice captain. It also meant she was physically distant from teachers she had relied so much on for emotional support.

Ms Mroz said maintaining connections with her teachers by ‘staying back’ after online classes and remaining focused on her goal to study marine science at James Cook University motivated her to continued working hard.

“Things were falling apart but I was always thinking of the positives. I was able to move in with this family and it meant I was able to study in a space with good support and I was able to stay at school,” she said.

“I had always watched YouTube videos of people reacting to their ATAR. From Year 9 onwards when I learnt about VCE I was thinking what would that day be like. The teachers were doing so much to help me, so I decided I was going to work really hard and we could get through it together. I wasn’t worried about asking them questions over and over in order to understand everything because it was like talking to a friend. I didn’t think any of the scores defined me but it felt good getting good ones. In the end it didn’t really matter what the number was because I knew the story behind it. I got through it.”

“It was a tough year but I got all the things this year I have worked hard for.”

Ms Mroz achieved an ATAR score of 87.75 and was accepted into James Cook University in Townsville. “I flew up to Townsville with just a suitcase of what I was moving with, not knowing where I was going to live,” she said. “I stayed in a backpackers and then I was able to move into the first house I liked and contacted. They said I could move in the next day. I had a really great start to the uni experience, made friends and basked in the heat and glory of north Queensland. It was a tough year but I got all the things this year I have worked hard for.”

Ms Mroz said she became passionate about pursuing marine science after developing an interest in climate change and coral bleaching in Year 9. “When I did live with my mum she would always prioritise travelling and experiences over any material things,” she said. “Getting to go snorkelling in Hawaii and Fiji I just loved the experience and knew it was something I wanted to learn more about. I would love to help the Great Barrier Reef with all the issues it is having because I want people in the future to be able to experience it. Seeing amazing reefs is an experience that is hard to describe. I want people to be able to see that with their own eyes.”

Ms Mroz’s next big challenge is figuring out how to get back to Townsville in time for the beginning of semester two after Queensland shut its borders to Victoria from Saturday at 1am. She flew to Gold Coast on Friday afternoon to beat the border closure and will then fly on to Townsville. Her message to students battling through another snap lockdown in Ballarat was not to take teachers for granted.

“At uni there are less of those personal connections. While you are in year 12 and have that support, use it,” she said. “Ask them as many questions as you want because they are struggling as well in COVID, they want you to do your best, they don’t want COVID to be bringing down what things you could have achieved.”

“Have the end goal always on your mind.”

Article by: Rochelle Kirkham, Picture: Adam Trafford
The Courier