Diana Qian had to overcome multiple hurdles to achieve her dream of attending university.
Diana Qian had to overcome multiple hurdles to achieve her dream of attending university, starting with being forced out of school in China at the age of 10 after back surgery left her paralysed.
Three years later her parents brought her to Australia for life-saving treatment, eventually settling here. “We had two words of English between us,” she recalls. And she faced just four years of secondary education – in a new language – to achieve enough marks to gain entrance to university.
She also found herself up against the barrier of low expectations. “I can't emphasise enough how the attitudinal barriers affected me – the fact I went through school with all the teachers expecting me to drop out after Year 10,” she says. “They didn’t expect me to get into uni. They sent me to work experience on the switchboard of a hospital and to fill envelopes at a bank.”
Diana proved them wrong, securing a place in a Bachelor of Applied Science program “by the skin of my teeth”.
There was yet another hurdle, though. Despite Diana achieving so much in such a short time, the then Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service refused her application for support to attend university. “They assessed me and said they believed I would fail,” she says. “They turned me down a week before I was due to start.”
In particular, she had hoped for support to live on campus because her disability meant it wasn’t viable to travel on public transport every day.
Education really opens up minds and worlds. It also gives you more choices about your life. My world was very small before I went to uni and I never imagined doing some of things I've done.
It was a huge blow but Diana would not be deterred: “I said to myself, ‘I got in and I’m going to go regardless of what they say’.
“I value life and the opportunity to gain an education, which I wouldn't have had if I had remained in China,” she says. “I wanted to reach my full potential and be able to make a contribution to others.”
Diana completed her Bachelor’s degree at the University of Western Sydney, then went on to complete Honours in Social Science at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), her thesis focusing on the interface of disability and ethnicity. She also holds a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Sydney.
Today she is a Plan Manager supporting people with disability under the National Disability Insurance Scheme and President of the Diversity and Disability Alliance, which provides peer support for people with disability.
“I'm passionate about human rights, social justice and making full inclusion a reality for people with disability from diverse backgrounds,” she says.
Asked about support for people with disability to attend university, Diana says she’d welcome more scholarships – for the psychological boost as much as the financial support.
“I often think the psychological barriers are much greater than the financial barriers,” she says. “Imagine what it would have meant to me if I’d received a scholarship when I felt like everyone was saying, ‘You’re not worth supporting’.
“A scholarship not only provides financial help, it also tells people that society values them and they are worth investing in, and that will counteract the discrimination and the low expectations they have encountered in their lives.”
On the financial side, her parents were first-generation migrants who had to work very hard to make ends meet, she says. Having a significant disability, she couldn’t take on casual work.
“I needed a laptop of my own, a printer so I didn’t have to go to the library. I couldn’t always access the textbooks I needed, which meant I was at a disadvantage academically,” she says.
Professor Simon Darcy of UTS Business school says people with disability live very complex lives, depending on their impairments and the level of support they need.
“A scholarship means they’re able to concentrate on studying rather than also trying to support themselves and deal with the extra costs of disability. They provide an opportunity for a person with disability not just to complete university but to complete with the best possible results to take into the marketplace.”
Diana encourages young people with disability to consider university. “Education really opens up minds and worlds. It also gives you more choices about your life. My world was very small before I went to uni and I never imagined doing some of things I've done.
“And the only way broader change occurs is when we start to value ourselves and are more visible in every aspect of society, including universities and the professional workforce.”
If you’d like to contribute to the success of students with disability at UTS Business School, please contact Hannah Brunskill, Advancement Officer.