Nevin is a clinical research associate who analyses data from medical trials to determine drug efficacy. He has a bachelor of pharmaceutical science from RMIT and has just completed a masters in pharmaceutical medicine from UNSW. Imagine, if you can then, that when the 25-year-old was a year seven student at a school in south-eastern Melbourne, he was “a bit below average in maths,” as he puts it. “I found it confusing.”
One of his teachers suggested he attend the Vinnies’ education program at St Mary’s in Dandenong.
“I was very quiet and shy when I joined the program, but within weeks I had a solid friendship group there. It really helped me to develop social skills and confidence,” he says.
Nevin also met an inspirational volunteer there whose love of maths was infectious.
“She was amazing and passionate about it. She illustrated practical applications about why it was important. She brought in her graphics calculator and developed my algebra skills, which had a knock-on effect in my learning.
“The volunteer sparked something in me and turned me into a maths buff actually,” says Nevin. “I ended up doing specialist maths and mathematical methods VCE subjects. Understanding maths really helped me out with physics and chemistry too.
“There is no chance I would be here in my profession now without the club,” says Nevin.
Nevin attended the program Saturday mornings all through high school until year 11. By year eight, he began receiving academic excellence awards that continued all through school. “The homework club gave me important skills in data and graph interpretation, too. These skills helped enormously in school and has made me stand out at university and at work now,” he says.
He improved in English, too. “The volunteers helped me with reading and comprehension, grammar, understanding a question, critical thinking and formatting essays. The more time you spend at school not understanding these things it just throws you out of the game,” he says.
Volunteers at the program come from all walks of life, but many are current or retired educationalists and professionals – and all have a passion for learning that they love to share.
“It was also a really nice environment and a happy place to be, so I was motivated to attend,” he says. “I had friends there and I enjoyed playing games with the volunteers, it wasn’t always strictly about the work. It was about fun and learning. There was also cordial and biscuits!
“I would have had a really tough time keeping up to date at school if I had not found the Vinnies education program, and I would have been more anxious. I felt a bit left in the dark at school.”
What makes this story even more inspiring is that Nevin has wasted no time in becoming a volunteer himself at the program now that he is established in his own career. “After I completed my studies, I wanted to help students like myself uncover their potential, too,” he says.
“The school system isn’t always able to provide enough one-to-one support. That’s where we come in. We can help students identify gaps in their knowledge and work out where they need to focus.
“If a student isn’t sure about something in their schoolwork, they talk to us without judgment or pressure. You can feel pressure at school if you don’t ‘get’ things.”
Nevin brings a rich depth of understanding to his volunteering, having been on the other side of the relationship. “When I didn’t ‘get’ things at school, I would discuss it with the Vinnies volunteer and they would give me their perspective and steer me in the right direction. They would find the right exercise for me. There was no sense of expectation or anxiety that you can feel at school. And that’s what I try to provide now for the students I’m working with.”
Nevin has encouraged his friends to join up as volunteers too.
“I love giving back to the community and helping a student to break down a problem into manageable steps for them is really satisfying,” he says.
“When I see a lightbulb go off in someone’s eyes, it’s a great feeling. I go home proud those days. And watching students’ confidence grow over time is very rewarding.”
Nevin is a remarkable testament to the impact of the Vinnies’ after-school learning clubs and sums them up simply as follows: “It’s important work. The programs really help to change young people’s lives.”