Lead from the front: The year 12 students who want to make an impact

Xavier College Llandilo year 12 students and captains Paige Manning and Huntley Jones are both First Nations Australians. “It’s nice being able to lead and let [Indigenous students] know its ok to be involved, and how much of a family we are when we’re all together,” Paige says. Photo Credit: Dominic Lorrimer

Year 12 students leading from the front

Roaa Ahmed is 18, but she’s no stranger to protesting for change. At just 10 years old, she took to the streets with thousands during the Egyptian revolution. Soon after authorities came banging on the door to arrest her teenage brother. “We were that type of family where we go and protest; we don’t keep silent,” she says.

The family fled Egypt and arrived in Australia in 2018 where Roaa found herself seeking advice from strangers on the streets of Bankstown. They pointed her to the local library and intensive English centre, which quickly changed her life. Two years later she is fluent in English, scoring top marks and preparing for her HSC at Beverly Hills Girls’ High School, where she is also on the student representative council.

But her lifeline over the past two years has been volunteering with refugees and teaching Arabic each weekend. “The beginning of year 11 was a shock and the first term was so bad for me, I gave up on many things. I thought I’d go to find a volunteering place, so at least I could help people,” she says. “I am passionate about helping people.”

Beverly Hills Girls High School Year 12 student Roaa Ahmed wants to help women who don’t have freedom, after living through the Egyptian revolution as a child. Photo Credit: Dominic Lorrimer

It gives her much in common with her new classmates in Sydney, who are emerging as a generation intent on making an impact. Their last two years have been rocked by COVID-19, economic uncertainty and the consequences of climate change. Says social analyst Mark McCrindle: “They’ve come of age at a time where wellbeing and mental health has been a focus, for good reason. There’s anxiety and a sense of global competition: ‘will I achieve all I should?’.”

Like all young people, the year 12 class of 2021 are keen to tackle the world’s problems. But they value making a difference and finding fulfilment in work more so than the generations before them. “[That focus] is a real badge of honour for them. Those insights say a lot of about the emerging leaders they will be,” McCrindle says.

The new challenges they’re coming up against also beckon new solutions. “They’ve recognised that the existing leaders don’t have the answers and it’s going to take a new generation to solve them,” McCrindle says. As year 12 students commence their final chapter of school this week, many already have a clear agenda for change in mind.

Mental health is on the radar for Josh Seward, the school captain of St Augustine’s College in Brookvale. Mental illness has always been prevalent in his northern beaches community, and even more-so since the pandemic struck. “Myself and my leadership team were interested in going a bit further and looking at how we can help our community and age group in the mental health space,” he says.

The suicides of some year 11 and 12 students in northern Sydney last year sparked fresh concern for young people’s wellbeing, “I think those stories and the COVID effect pushed us over the edge to making it a number one priority,” Josh says. “It was always up there – we were always going to talk about it. But we weren’t going to push it as hard until you hear those stories through friends or read those articles.”

Josh Seward, captain of St Augustine’s College in Brookvale, wants to help the northern beaches community and his age group in the mental health space, after seeing people struggle during COVID-19. Photo Credit: James Brickwood

This year he wants all his peers to complete an accredited one-day mental health crisis course. “It helps you pick up on signs and symptoms. It means the senior boys have an understanding of what they’re talking about; they’re not having people ask for help and having no idea what to do or make it up on the spot. [That] would give the boys someone to talk to, if they didn’t want to talk to staff,” Josh says.

“Once this training day gets passed by the school, I’m hoping to take it to a young leader’s meeting with our local member Zali Steggall, and present it there for all the schools in Warringah, with the hope that she would say: ‘let’s take it on and get it in all the schools’.”

At the edge of western Sydney, in Llandilo, the captains of Xavier College are also determined to make the schoolyard a safer place for students. Head boy Huntley Jones witnessed the impact of bullying firsthand when his younger brother was a victim. “It hurt. I’d hate for anybody to feel like that,” he says. “I want to start a ballot box where kids can write what’s happening to them anonymously and we can talk to the students privately, without anyone else having to know.”

Huntley is a member of the Kamilaroi nation and head girl Paige Manning is a Wailwan Wiradjuri woman; both have also taken leading roles at the Murama Indigenous Youth Summit over the past three years. “It’s giving a voice to our culture,” Paige says. “As young First Nations students, it’s a way we can almost speak for our ancestors. We are the present and we are the future.”

Part of their leadership has been instilling that same pride in younger students. “There are a lot of students who identify as Indigenous but don’t want to get involved. That’s hard to see as someone who is so proud to be Indigenous,” Paige says. “It’s nice being able to lead and let them know it’s ok to be involved and how much of a family we are when we’re all together.”

School principal Michael Pate credits the students with shaping his own approach to leadership. “I learn from these two kids every day. They’ve humbled me in understanding what First Nations culture is all about,” he says. “When it comes to January 26 – I’m very much with them; we need to change the date. Both Hunter and Paige are walking in two worlds. They’re sharing that, in a way that any First Nations student at this school can be proud to say: ‘I’m First Nations’.”

Young people are the group most likely to support social change, such as moving Australia Day from January 26 out of respect to First Nations people. Their interest in human rights, social justice and the environment is growing, according to an analysis of student essays over the past decade by the Whitlam Institute.

“Despite the trust deficit our current democratic system has created, our children are actually keenly political and engaged,” says director Leanne Smith. Students are choosing to write about global warming, pollution and climate change more as time goes on; latest assessment data confirms those among students’ main concerns.

Santa Sabina prefect Eloise Struthers is among the new generation of environmental activists. Seeing coral lose its colour over separate scuba diving trips first inspired her to get involved with the school strike for climate movement in year 9. “I realised how many people cared and how many people my age were passionate about this,” she says.

Santa Sabina’s environment and sustainability prefect Eloise Struthers advocated for her role to be established, so the school could do more for the environment. Photo Credit: Dominic Lorrimer

Eloise organised her school’s own strike delegation the next year, and took up captaincy of the environment committee the year after. But she thought the school needed to do more. “Eloise advocated that there should be a new [environment and sustainability] role on the executive,” her principal Paulina Skerman said.

Now in that inaugural position, Eloise has set a list of practical goals: changing the canteen’s packaging from plastic to bamboo, filling the printers with recycled paper, and organising an energy audit to switch the school to LED lighting.

“But I also want to leave a legacy of inspiring change and leaving an environmentally conscious community,” she says. “The main thing is I want a change of heart, within the school and beyond. Everyone has some sense of empathy. Genuinely talking to them is the most effective way, I’ve found.”

Slam poet and aspiring author Jihad Yassine is more likely to change the world with the written word. The Punchbowl Boys’ High School student has already published his first book of poetry, and will spend his HSC year working on another.

Punchbowl Boys’ High School student Jihad Yassine has already published his first book through the Story Factory. “People read books to find inspiration of any sort, whether a poetry or a business book. That’s my goal – to help people,” he says. Photo Credit: Dominic Lorrimer

“I’ve always been in love with the idea of fantasy, being taken to another place by reading, feeling something different, creating a world where anything is possible for other people,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to be an author. I want to give people a way to express themselves if they don’t know how to. People read books to find inspiration of any sort, whether a poetry or a business book. That’s my goal – to help people.”

Roaa’s goal is the same. “I am passionate about helping the people who don’t have freedom,” she says. “I faced that problem, so I know what it is to not have freedom. Everyone needs to have that: reading what they want, being what they want. I’m going to do that for women.

“We have a saying in Egypt that says: ‘your freedom stops when you start hurting others’. This is my rule in life – as long as I don’t hurt anyone and am keeping my voice respectfully, I have that voice.”

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