- The scholarship provides Soumi Gopalakrishnan with free tuition and accommodation while she studies a Bachelor of Health Science
- Soumi, who fled Sri Lanka with her family five years ago, says her experiences fuelled a desire to work as a doctor in regional Australia
- Soumi's younger brother Pirashanth finishes Year 12 at the end of the year and hopes to study international business at university
Rare university scholarship gives new start for top asylum seeker student
Soumi Gopalakrishnan dreams of becoming a doctor, but despite finishing top of her school, she probably won’t be able to go to university next year.
“I really don’t have any options,” Soumi,19, said, wiping away tears.
“I’m doing everything, literally I’m doing everything I can do and still at the end of the day I’m like ‘where is this going to take me?’.
Four years ago, Soumi was on a rickety old fishing boat with her family, headed for Christmas Island.
As Sri Lankan Tamils, her family says they were forced to flee persecution by the Sinhalese.
“It was cramped, it was a small fishing boat and there were more than 100 of us. There was a pregnant woman, there were elderly people … infants — we all starved,” she said.
“It was a life-changing thing, it could have went the other way and we could have all died but we got here and hoping we could have a better lifestyle, just to live.”
In Australia they were placed on bridging visas. The family then applied for Safe Haven visas but were rejected and the courts are now deciding their fate.
This year Soumi finished Year 12 as Dux of St James College in inner-city Brisbane, where she was also school captain and collected a swag of academic awards.
She also completed two university subjects under the Queensland University of Technology’s (QUT) scholarship for high-achieving Year 12s.
“The workload was crazy,” Soumi said.
Refugee status puts uni hopes at risk
But despite her stellar achievements, Soumi’s only hope of going to university is through winning a full scholarship — they are rare for people with her background.
Otherwise, asylum seekers are classed as international full-fee paying students, which means they do not have access to HECS.
They pay much more than domestic students and have to pay fees upfront.
“Some of my courses that I applied for, it’s over $100,000 a year and it goes for five years and I have to pay up front and I still can’t figure out how that’s going to happen,” Soumi said.
In Queensland only QUT offers full tuition scholarships for asylum seekers and Griffith has options for refugees.
Interstate, there are only a handful of universities who provide full scholarships to those seeking asylum.
But Soumi is trying every one.
The decision to flee Sri Lanka has split her close-knit family.
Her father, a jeweller, now works in the Rockhampton meatworks, returning to Brisbane only a few times a year.
Her two older sisters both work in a stationery factory in Melbourne.
Soumi knows that is her likely future too if she cannot find a way to attend university.
The thought of not being able to continue her education played on Soumi’s mind when she recently received multiple awards at the school’s award ceremony.
“It is very hard,” she said.
Her father made a special trip home for her graduation last week.
Generosity to family ‘amazing’
Soumi, her mother and younger brother are this week packing up their Newmarket home, provided to them by a Brisbane doctor who wants to remain anonymous.
They are moving to Melbourne so the family can be reunited, but the generosity they have experienced is not lost on them.
“Especially my school because they have provided everything for me — free education, free transport, everything — it’s amazing,” Soumi said.
“This house is amazing because without these kind of people, I don’t think we would be able to survive here.”