Tom and Teja Roberts Have Found A Community At UOW's Far South Coast Campus As They Build A Brighter Future
Tom and Teja Roberts have faced more obstacles than most young couples ever will. In the last few years alone, they have had to contend with an horrific car accident, chronic health problems, and the juggling act that comes with balancing work, study, and raising two small children.
But the young couple, from Batemans Bay on the New South Wales South Coast, are determined to put one foot in front of the other, using the power of education to build a brighter future.
“We’ve experienced so much,” said Teja. “We’ve had a lot happen in the last few years, but we still have each other.”
After meeting at TAFE in their teens, Tom and Teja moved from Orange, in the New South Wales Central West, to Batemans Bay, with the aim of raising their two small children in a coastal community. But they were at a loss as to what to do with their lives. They each had their passions but no idea how to translate their passions into a future career path.
Then Teja saw an advertisement for the University of Wollongong Batemans Bay and decided that this was her chance.
“I sent an email to the uni. That first step was the hardest part, sending the email and thinking, ‘Yes, I’m actually going to find out more about this’. I had no firsthand reference for university, I didn’t know what it would be like.
“We came in for a meeting. I made Tom come with me because he needed something to do, too, and he ended up starting university before me,” she said with a laugh.
Since starting at UOW Batemans Bay, Teja has discovered an interest in healthcare, and aims to become a midwife after completing her Bachelor of Nursing. For his part, Tom, a former music promoter, enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in History and Indigenous Studies, with a plan to pursue a Master of Secondary Teaching when he finishes his undergraduate degree.
The young couple’s fight to build a bright new future has been complicated, and heightened, by Tom’s terminal illness. The 29-year-old has Friedreich’s ataxia, a genetic disorder that causes progressive damage to the nervous system. Teja is his primary carer, as well as looking after their five-year-old daughter and three-year-old son.
“The best way to describe the disease would be if you took MS [multiple sclerosis] and cerebral palsy and smooshed them together, and then it gets worse over time,” Teja said, before Tom injected: “And add a sprinkle of Parkinson’s disease, too.”
Diagnosed at the age of 14, Tom has been dealing with the brutal reality of the disease for more than half his life. It affects his speech - “not my brain, but the way my brain communicates”. He is confined to a wheelchair and is in constant pain.
Tom credits Teja for helping him both physically and emotionally through the ups and downs of his illness. His love of music and his love of his family are what motivates him each day.
“Teja and I have been together since we were younger, before I started to have many effects from the disease. I was open and honest with her about it,” Tom said. “When things started to go downhill, before we had the kids, I told her she could leave.”
Married for five years, Tom and Teja manage with the day-to-day of their lives, studying, looking after two children.
Despite all the other demands on their time, they also give back to their local community and to their fellow students at Batemans Bay campus. They are both involved in In2Uni and AIME, programs that help local high school and primary school students to access higher education. They are also working to create a local garden and playground in the community, aimed at young children, that will celebrate Indigenous culture and storytelling.
Next month, Tom will shave his hair – which is more than two feet long – as part of Shave for a Cure at the Batemans Bay campus, to raise money for cancer research. He will be joined by his three-year-old, who will also be shaving his head in an act of solidarity with his dad.
Jaimey Facchin, Campus Manager at UOW Batemans Bay, said that from the moment she first met Tom and Teja, she has been impressed by the couple’s courage and grit.
“UOW Batemans Bay is a small campus, so our staff get an opportunity to really get to know our students,” Ms Facchin said. “Tom and Teja, and their gorgeous kids, are part of our family.
“I am constantly blown away by their determination, their passion for learning, and their attitude towards life. They have become an integral part of the student community.”
This sense of community, at the small South Coast campus, is what propels Tom and Teja through the long road to their degrees. The daily juggle of children, study, and health is hard, particularly for a young couple. But Teja is optimistic about what lies ahead.
“It has been a really rocky road,” she said. “Being here on campus has been exactly what we need to fit in with our weird, complicated lives.”