How a scholarship led Chevy to teach with compassion

Meet a La Trobe teaching alumnus who overcame homelessness to build an inspiring education career.

Chevy O’Callaghan always wanted to be a teacher. As a young girl, she’d play ‘school’ with her siblings, volunteer to show new students around her primary school, and practise conversation with classmates who spoke English as a second language.

But when Chevy reached high school, life at home changed. She was sent out into the city streets, with no chance of returning.

‘I was living on the streets and couch surfing. On the street, I had to deal with people with physical and mental health issues. It was quite rough,’ Chevy says.

‘After a while, I was put into residential care with seven or so young people and a number of different case workers.’

Despite her situation, Chevy held on tightly to her teaching dream.

‘I knew in the back of my mind that I had to keep away from trouble. If I got caught up in crime with the other kids, it would jeopardise my chance to be a teacher,’ she says.

‘So throughout this, I continued to go to high school. My grades weren’t great, but I managed to complete year 11 and 12.’

A surprise scholarship

Chevy worked hard to keep her circumstances secret. She walked almost an hour to school each day, to a part-time job after school, and then back to her accommodation. But somehow, someone found out about her life outside the school gate.

‘To this day I’m not sure who that person was. They saw some perseverance and diligence about me, that I had a goal. And they put my name forward for a scholarship to La Trobe University.’

For Chevy, receiving a scholarship opened the path to study a Bachelor of Primary Teaching at La Trobe’s Bendigo campus. And just as vitally, it boosted her self-confidence.

‘A scholarship gives you a sense of belief in yourself and a feeling that other people care for you. Going through school, when my grades were never good, I’d think, “What’s wrong? Is this as good as I’m ever going to be?” Thanks to someone having faith in me, all of that self-doubt went away,’ she says.

‘I could see that I could achieve something. I felt very privileged and humbled, and I became more dedicated to learn along the way.’

Adapting to university life

At first, Chevy struggled to adjust to university life.

‘I had to retrain the way I behaved, because my attitude was still very street-like. I had to learn how to communicate with teachers, how to ask for help, and how to take critical feedback on my work,’ she says.

Chevy credits the extra guidance available at La Trobe for helping her settle in.

‘I used student and academic support when I needed it and built up to doing it on my own. My grades improved and I got my first ‘A’!’

In her second year at uni, things ‘really started to change’. Chevy understood how subjects were taught and what her teachers were trying to achieve. She also learnt that she suffered dyslexia. With the support of her teachers, she began learning strategies to manage it.

Now a qualified primary school teacher, Chevy uses dyslexia to her advantage.

‘For a teacher to say to a class, “I have dyslexia,” opens the door for a student to say, “So do I!” It helps our relationship. They don’t think I’m so far away from them, that I know it all and they don’t.’

A world-wide teaching career

Since graduating from La Trobe, Chevy has worked in teaching roles for over a decade. She’s also volunteered at a library for adult learners, and helped at-risk children and adults with literacy and numeracy. A travel enthusiast, she’s given her time to practise English with locals from Myanmar (Burma) to Nepal. And today, she’s back at university completing her Masters in TESOL.

Reflecting on her career, Chevy is grateful to have had the opportunity to give back to her community.

‘Knowing where I’ve come from, and that someone put me on this journey through a scholarship to La Trobe, made me want to help others.’

With a husband and three children of her own, Chevy has seen firsthand the powerful ripple effect one scholarship can have. She believes no donation is ever too small to make a difference.

‘Someone might think what they’ve donated isn’t enough, but it’s bigger than what it could possibly be in their mind. The person who donated to my scholarship hasn’t just helped me – through me, they’ve helped a multitude of people from different backgrounds and situations. It was an amazing thing they did.’

For young teachers starting out in their career, Chevy’s advice is to have compassion for those you’re teaching.

‘Have an ear and an eye for that person, look for how they’re struggling and bring something for them, to encourage them along. Make no judgements at all,’ she says.

‘Just say, “I believe that you can be here, and I can help you. We can do that together – are you willing?” We all have something to give. Do it freely, with compassion and with love.’

Support a student like Chevy to receive a university education – give to the La Trobe Scholarship Fund today.