“Made us feel ‘thought of'”: Alison Southwell Reflects on CEF Impact 23 Years Later

Country Education Foundation of Yass Valley alumni Alison Southwell, who received a grant back in 2000 that made her studies possible.

For Country Education Foundation of Yass Valley (CEF Yass) alumni Alison Southwell, the need to travel over 700 kilometres to Armidale to attend university back in 2000 seemed a stretch too far.

Alumni: Alison Southwell

Local CEF Foundation: CEF Yass Valley

Course: Bachelor of Rural Science

Institution: University of New England

Growing up on a small family farm near Yass, NSW, her parents found themselves in a tricky situation when it came to working out how to support her university ambitions financially.

According to Ms Southwell her parents were “caught in the middle” financially and found it difficult to access government study support for her, as owning farmland meant they were “asset rich”, but they were in fact “cash poor”.

Her mum worked a full-time job, and her dad worked other paid jobs at the same time as running the family’s small farm, to make ends meet.

Scratching their heads trying to figure out how to get her to the University of New England (UNE) in Armidale, NSW, they came across CEF Yass.

Founder of CEF Yass, Katie Walker, who is still a committee member today, came to Alison’s aid and signed her up for a $1000 grant, which allowed her to purchase a desktop computer to complete her course work with.

“We were under considerable financial pressure,” Ms Southwell said.

I used it the computer throughout my degree for all assignments. I could work in my room away from distractions and on a level playing field with peers in my degree who all seemed to be ‘born on the gravy train’.

– Alison Southwell

“It even had a floppy disk drive. It took up the whole amount [grant funds] and I’m pretty sure had about a tenth of the processing power of my [current day] smart phone!”

Ms Southwell was a grant recipient during the early years of CEF Australia as a national foundation, which was founded in Boorowa, NSW, and is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

She is one of literally thousands of success stories to come out of CEF, and given she now finds herself as the CEO of the Holbrook Landcare Network, is a true stand-out.

She completed a Bachelor of Rural Science at UNE, finishing with first class honours, before moving to Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, NSW, and completing a PHD investigating the ecophysiology of native grasslands.

During her PHD studies she also worked full time as a lecturer at Charles Sturt across subjects including agricultural systems, extension, pasture management and workplace learning.

She continued her work at Charles Sturt while also starting a broadacre cropping contracting business from her family farm in Yass, as well as becoming a mother to two daughters, all between 2011 and 2014.

In 2018 she was promoted to Course Director for the Agricultural Science degrees at Charles Sturt, before pursuing a career change in 2021 to land in her current position.

I now employ 11 staff who assist me to deliver community-focused, natural resource management and sustainable agriculture projects to 480 members and the broader communities around the Holbrook, Upper Murray and South-West Slopes regions of NSW

– Alison Southwell

Looking back on the CEF Yass grant she received 23 years ago, she said it was more important from her parents’ perspective at the time.

“As a young person, you don’t always appreciate the gravity of the gift you’re being given. But my parents did. From my parent’s perspective, little funds ever seemed to come over the great divide to people like us,” she said.

“It was localised support and controlled by the Yass community as a first attempt to support ongoing education for local students. It tended to support less well-off kids and it made us feel ‘thought of’.”

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