Tabitha's search for meaning and purpose
Tabitha Trew’s memory of the moment she first heard about Clemente – the academically approved university course for those who’d otherwise be excluded from higher education opportunities – is crowded with surprise and bewilderment.
It’s 2019. Amid laundry and a multitude of life hurdles, she is approached by a woman at a support centre run by the St Vincent de Paul Society.
“I’d been married for nearly 20 years, and through domestic violence, I had found myself homeless,” says Tabitha, a mother of six children aged between seven and 16.
“The police had connected me with a mentoring program at Vinnies, and so I’m there at the centre in Campbelltown waiting for my clothes to get washed when this lady comes up to me.”
The woman tells her about the Clemente program, how Tabitha could study subjects like philosophy and history and receive a Certificate in Liberal Arts from Australian Catholic University (ACU).
“I listened to her and my initial thought was, ‘Are you are absolutely mad?’,” says Tabitha. “Given what was going on in my life, university was the furthest thing from my mind. But I went home, which at the time was a safety house, and I thought, ‘Wow, I can go to a class with university lecturers! Why not just do it?’”
Tabitha Trew did do it. She enrolled in Clemente that year, successfully completing all four subjects. Two years later, in 2021, she was a part-time student pursuing a Bachelor of Theology/Bachelor of Philosophy at ACU’s Strathfield Campus.
“The effect it’s had on me and my kids, it’s huge,” she says. “I’m the first person in my family to go to university, and I’ve actually taken my children on campus just to show them where I study. They’re in complete awe, and it’s changed all of our lives for the better.”
Search for meaning
While Tabitha never considered university study as an option, she has long been engaged in a quest for knowledge.
Thanks to a nurturing schoolteacher who actively encouraged her curiosity, she was introduced to the works of some of the world’s great philosophers.
Tabitha and daughters.
“From a young age, I’ve always been interested in finding out who I am and how the world works,” says Tabitha, who was raised in housing commission in Cabramatta, in Sydney’s west. “I come from a broken home and there was domestic violence along the way, so books were my solace and my escape from reality.”
When she enrolled in Clemente, she was surprised to discover that subjects like philosophy and theology could be studied academically.
“Growing up in a rough area where there were gangs and the heroin trade, university was never really a high priority or something we really thought about,” she says. “So, to find myself in a classroom all these years later, in a context where I have the opportunity to ponder these subjects deeply at an academic level, that is just a huge privilege and a huge honour.”
In the process of learning about these subjects, Tabitha has become more willing to encourage those around her to engage in philosophical thinking.
“Some of my friends are like, ‘You’re mad, Tab’, but I encourage people to go deeper with themselves and to read books. It has helped me to make better sense of the world, even when it feels like it’s all stacked against you.”
While Tabitha is kept busy juggling university study with part-time employment and the rigours of parenthood, she still finds time to give back.
Driven by her own experience, she regularly volunteers for community organisations in western Sydney, helping those who have fallen on hard times.
“While I was married, we lived out on a farm and I was isolated and cut off from mainstream society, but I was still able to get the help I needed to keep my kids safe and get our lives back on track,” she says. “Once that happened and I came through the other side, I thought, ‘Okay, now it’s my turn to give back’.”
When Tabitha is out there in the community, she’s more than happy to share her own journey – from safety house resident to university student.
She does the same in her role as a student ambassador for ACU. Since late 2022, Tabitha has worked with a small team to run a range of programs that encourage those from disadvantaged backgrounds to view university as an attainable option.
“I absolutely love it,” she says. “Talking to high school students and mature-age students, encouraging them to pursue what they love and helping them to see the pathways available to them, it feels important and it feels meaningful.”
Forging her own path
Religion was never part of Tabitha Trew’s upbringing.
“When I was growing up, there wasn’t much talk about faith,” she says.
But as a parent and a believer herself, she wanted to expose her children to the virtues of a spiritual life.
“I wanted them to know God, and that prompted me to get baptised as a Christian later in life. It was a surreal experience but it really solidified what I’d been feeling internally, and it allowed me to express it to those around me.”
In recent years, Tabitha’s understanding of her faith has evolved, both through her exploration of theology and philosophy at university, and through the engagement she’s had with other students – especially those with “fresh eyes and hope for the future”.
As for her own future hopes, Tabitha wants to use her double-degree to work in chaplaincy and pastoral care with the Defence Force – a job that would combine her interest in spirituality with her love of her country.
“I love Australia and I love the people,” she says. “Through my charity work, I’ve met many veterans, people who have served our country, and they’re often left by the wayside with deep emotional trauma. These veterans could benefit from spiritual nourishment, and I feel a pull towards that – to helping to fill that gap.”
In the meantime, she is thankful for every moment she gets to spend with her six children, and in the classroom, engaging with deep philosophical questions she has long hoped to answer.
“It’s a busy life, but a fulfilling one, too,” she says. “I’m 41 now, and I guess I am proof that university is for anyone. The Clemente program really plucked me out of a deep hole. It’s extraordinary, and it really shows you just how powerful education can be.”
Learn more about ACU’s Clemente program.
Keen to find meaning and purpose through a degree in philosophy and theology at ACU? Explore the options.