It was a special moment for Kamilaroi man James Dries when he graduated with a bachelor of science degree at the University of New England's December graduation this week.
Born and raised in Gunnedah, tertiary education wasn't part of his plans - but after having worked since finishing year 10 at St Marys College, he realised he had to invest in himself and his skillset.
Along with his degree - his second from UNE - Mr Dries also received a vice-chancellor's scholar award for outstanding academic achievement; another "very special moment" was the Oorala Aboriginal Centre's Indigenous sashing ceremony.
"I gave my sash to my father as he was too ill to attend," Mr Dries said.
"He and my mother are very proud of what I have achieved at UNE.
"The sash also honours my grandmother's sacrifice for her children and grandchildren. Her family disowned her when she met my grandfather, yet they went on to have eight children together."
Mr Dries said his family was "not well-off growing up", but his parents spent a lot of time with their children and made many sacrifices to support them.
"My fiancée Lisa has also been extremely supportive of me throughout my studies."
Change of direction
Mr Dries joined Fire and Rescue NSW after school but recently decided it was a young person's game.
"My job is very labour-intensive at times and, while I enjoy it, I'm not getting younger," he said.
"If I wanted to move on, I had to keep my options open and invest in skills that were transferable in a general market."
He enrolled in his first degree: a bachelor of exercise and sports science.
"I was the first in my family to attend university, but once I learned how study and university processes worked, I realised I had a knack for learning. I graduated with a distinction last year," he said.
Mr Dries credits tertiary education with boosting his confidence, and he plans to enrol in a masters by research next year.
"University is quite challenging at the start, especially after being out of school for so long, but once you have systems in place, it is not necessarily about how smart you are but about how hard you work.
"For me, it is not just about obtaining a piece of paper from my studies, but about the knowledge.
"I have a genuine passion for and interest in what I'm learning."
Mr Dries regularly helps at UNE's intensive schools, and this year was a mentor in the inaugural Indigenous Scholars/TRACKS Peer Support Program run by Oorala Aboriginal Centre.