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Anna Merlo

From hardship to UQ Law: Anna's scholarship story

UQ people
Published 5 Oct, 2023  ·  6-minute read

Being granted a UQ Law Leadership, Excellence and Diversity (LEAD) Scholarship was Anna’s ticket into a top-tier university – an intimidating feat for the Redcliffe school leaver who held an innate desire to help people but was unsure whether UQ was the right place to explore that passion. 

After meeting other students from all walks of life, Anna uncovered the diverse pathways on offer at UQ and learnt you should never judge a book by its cover.

Read more about Anna’s story in her own words.

Sky’s the limit

Growing up, I knew I’d pursue tertiary studies, but I never saw UQ as a possibility. When I finally decided I wanted to study law and saw that the entry requirements were quite high, UQ seemed even further out of reach. 

Luckily, I’d heard a lot about several scholarships on school trips to universities and had it drilled into me that you should always check what opportunities were on offer – and apply for anything you were eligible for. That’s exactly how I discovered the LEAD Scholarship.

Coming from a low-income, single-parent family, I was the first in my immediate family to graduate high school and attend university. So, I knew from the outset that scholarship applications were something I should put a bit of time and effort into.

Anna Merlo

Five years on, I am now a proud scholarship recipient and I’m so glad I worked hard on my application – it’s paid off in a big way throughout my degree.

Anna Merlo
Bachelor of Arts / Laws (Honours)

A difficult year

I grew up on the Redcliffe Peninsula with my mum and little brother Luis. We grew up spending weekends at the beach with friends and exploring the markets every Sunday. We were perpetually sunburned! 

Right before Year 12, however, my mum got sick, and we couldn’t live with her while she was in the process of recovering. My brother and I moved to Ipswich to live with our dad, and it was a big adjustment for all of us. 

Being thrown into an entirely new town, home and school meant we were set for a fairly tumultuous year ahead. I also had to pick up new subjects for my final year, as they weren’t all offered at my new school.

Year 12 was pretty terrible for me, but I was still eager to follow my passion for learning, so I threw myself into my studies. Getting into university became my light at the end of the tunnel. Studying was the one thing that remained the same throughout such a rocky time in my life, and it felt good to focus on something entirely within my own control. Focusing on school kept me grounded. 

As the end of the year approached, I saw the end in sight and started on my scholarship and pathway applications including the Educational Access Scheme (EAS), Undergraduate Law Admission Scheme (ULAS) and LEAD. This required getting statements and letters signed by my teachers, as well as opening up and writing a personal statement about how much I struggled throughout Year 12. I needed to share a lot about my life, including how the social and academic change took a massive toll on me, all while my mum was sick. My Legal Studies teacher, Mrs Garrioch, was a big supporter throughout the application process – and as a UQ graduate herself, she was a part of the reason UQ seemed more achievable to me. I’ll never forget how she convinced me how much I’d love the sandstone campus and getting coffee with friends between classes – she was absolutely right! 

Opening doors despite disruption

After such a difficult year (moving schools also negatively affected my predicted OP score) QTAC’s Educational Access Scheme (EAS) really helped. 

EAS takes into consideration the financial or personal challenges that can impact students, helping eligible school leavers to compete on a more equitable basis.

Through this scheme, I was able to apply for the ‘financial hardship’ and ‘home environment’ categories. There’s also a ‘school environment’ category now, which looks like it would be great if you’ve gone through something like me. Success in these applications effectively added 2 adjustment points to my score, helping change my score from an OP 3 to an OP 1 (which is very similar to going from an ATAR score of 95 to 99). This support meant I was now eligible for a UQ Law offer.

When I received my scholarship offer, conditional on getting accepted to study at UQ, I remember the feeling of being so close to the future I’d just started to let myself dream of. When I got the offer for my dual degree in law and arts, on the nearly 2-hour train from Redcliffe back to Ipswich after visiting my boyfriend for the weekend, I cried with joy and a little bit of exhaustion. All that work was finally adding up, and I was on my way to UQ!

Meeting the cohort 

I’ll admit, coming to UQ for the first time was daunting. The campus was huge, just like Mrs Garrioch said it was, and the professors were so knowledgeable. It felt like I’d stepped into a different world, miles away from anywhere I’d grown up. 

LEAD scholarship recipients

LEAD scholarship recipients

With the bonus of financial support, I’ve been able to:

  • pay for all of my own textbooks and transport, and not rely on my parents
  • move out of home and live closer to campus
  • not worry so much about taking time off work to focus on my exams
  • save towards buying my first car. 

My scholarships have allowed me independence, freedom and security. They provided a financial safety net for the last 5 years of my program – as well as a great support network of peers and mentors. My degree wouldn’t have been possible without them. 

Similar to when I was in high school, study has been my guiding light throughout my degree. It’s immensely rewarding to know all these years of flashcards, assignments and exams will add up to a dual degree, which will open so many different doors for me in the future. In 2022, I started working in the legal industry and also had a non-fiction essay published in UQ’s Jacaranda Journal.

I also met some of my closest friends through my studies and encountered such a diverse group of peers, people who have made my life richer and more well-rounded. 

None of this would be possible without my studies, and none of my studies would have been possible without my scholarships. 

UQ has given me both the confidence and the network to go further than I thought was even possible. I simply wouldn’t be where I am now without the support of my parents and family, and certainly not without the UQ LEAD and UQ Link scholarships.

Advice for future scholars

What I found the hardest was how scary it is to lay all your struggles out on paper or in a scholarship interview. In my mind, it felt a bit like taking pity on myself. Looking back now, I know it wasn’t pity, but courage. 

It’s brave to acknowledge when things are hard. Scholarships like LEAD are made for people who have struggled in some way – maybe through financial challenges, educational disruption, living with a disability, or something else. Put simply, the people reading your applications don’t know your struggles unless you tell them. Open honesty is what got me into my university program. You don’t get what you don’t apply for, so my best advice is to take a chance on yourself and apply if you think you might be eligible. It could change your life.

I distinctly remember being incredibly nervous about my interview. I sat in the car with my dad for half an hour trying to hype myself up, and then struggled to find the interview room because the library was so huge! Later, in my panic, I told the interviewers that I’d never dreamed of going to UQ because “I thought it was just a school for rich kids”. They told me that was a reputation they’re actively trying to change, and that has stuck with me ever since. I think I’m a small piece of living proof that UQ can be an amazing place for anyone to thrive – and I’m so glad that it was for me.

Find out more about the UQ Law School LEAD Scholarship.

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