The formative experiences of a boy born into poverty in London in the early 20th Century has changed the lives of students from rural and regional areas of Australia studying at UOW in the 21st Century. George Alexander was born in 1910, growing up in the shadow of World War I. He lived with his maternal grandparents from the age of two, but they could only afford to provide him, and their other children, with the basics.
As a young boy Mr Alexander saw the value of an education as he witnessed his grandfather, a fuel merchant, struggle with illiteracy. During school holidays, George went to work with his grandfather to help him count money. At 13, Mr Alexander left school to support himself by working at a bicycle shop. He dreamed of becoming a motor mechanic but his family could not afford the cost of an apprenticeship.
It was while he working on a steamboat, that Mr Alexander met a gentleman who often spoke so fondly of Australia that Mr Alexander set about researching the antipodes. He fantasised about the Australian countryside and how he could get there.
At 15, Mr Alexander submitted a lengthy application to The Big Brother Movement, an Australian mentoring initiative that sought out upper middle-class boys who were educated in private schools. George was neither. But his intelligence and clear expressions of his goals, determination and passion couldn’t be ignored.
Just after his 16th birthday Mr Alexander was on his way to Melbourne. When he arrived he worked on various farms across Victoria during the Depression. There was a serious dry spell which made farming nearly impossible and within three years Mr Alexander was out of a job with no contact from his Big Brother and very little money in his pocket.
Mr Alexander was a thinker and a tinker and very resourceful. He knew how to turn his experience as a farmhand into opportunities. He had learned a lot about the environment, how to build and make improvements to equipment and how to market himself. By the time he was 21, Mr Alexander finally found himself working as a mechanic at a garage, although he had to start for free.
Over a decade later Mr Alexander invented a metal fitting for garden hoses called the Neta. Despite the unfavourable economic conditions of the late 1940s, Mr Alexander launched his new business and by the 1960s, Neta was a household name.
In his 60s, Mr Alexander decided to become a philanthropist, wanting to make life easier for others who found themselves in similar circumstances to his own in his formative years. In 1972 he established the George Alexander Foundation (GAF) with $30,000. The fund reached over $10 million during his lifetime and is now worth $33 million. He said: “It’s not clever to hold onto it until the last minute, and I am sure you can’t take it with you when you leave.”
Given his own background, Mr Alexander was passionate about supporting and encouraging young people from rural and regional areas to succeed. He believed in planting seeds in the hope of growing great trees. He often said that the GAF scholars would become his greatest legacy. Mr Alexander believed the importance of philanthropy and hoped that his example of giving would inspire others to do the same. In the last 16 years the Foundation has helped close to 1000 young people fulfill their educational goals.
In 2018 UOW partnered with the George Alexander Foundation to provide five academic scholarships each year. The scholarships are valued at more than $20,000 each. Scholars are selected because of their academic drive, their community involvement and their leadership skills. This includes volunteering, work history, and other extracurricular activities, as well as the academic standing and the measure of leadership potential demonstrated throughout their academic, professional, and personal life.
GAF scholar, Hollie Wornes, from Albury NSW is pursuing Bachelor of Journalism degree. Hollie saw her grades slip as she was struggling to pay living expenses and find a balance between work and study. She was considering dropping out of university when she received a call telling her she had received a GAF scholarship.
“The scholarship literally lifted so much stress off my shoulders financially,” Hollie said. “I want to prove to the GAF community that I am a worthy recipient of this scholarship.” Hollie hopes her career in journalism will inspire others to change the world.
GAF scholar, Callum Somerville, from rural Tasmania is pursing Bachelor of Mathematics/Bachelor of Science (Physics) degrees. Money was tight for Callum as he adjusted to studying, working and supporting himself while living away from home. He felt like moving to Wollongong from rural Tasmania was “like moving to a different planet.”
When Callum heard about the GAF scholarship he put a lot of time and effort into the application knowing, if successful, it would help his family out financially. Callum had a tough introduction to university life, but like Mr Alexander himself, he drew on experiences in life that contributed to his leadership skills, team work ethics and most importantly to his resilience. “If everyone knew how to get back up after falling, the world would be a place of constant achievement,” Callum said.