Beyond our cities, in the regions and rural Australia, the challenges confronting young people often devolves to the single thought: what happens next? You start Year 12 – what happens after that? Do you leave home – your small town, your family farm – and head to the nearest city, for further education or in search of a job that goes beyond working in the local café or supermarket? Do you stay, and watch as others leave? Where do you turn for advice and support to help give an answer to those questions?
Now, an initiative developed by Youthrive Victoria offers the promise of giving young people the benefit of the experience of those who have already confronted the question of what happens next and can help others find their own answer. It’s called the Rural Youth Network and its website is officially live this week, inviting Victorians aged between 18 and 30 to sign up and connect with those who can provide them with support and opportunities. It has a simple goal: to blend the best of local rural and regional communities with the best of online opportunities.
“We’ve done a lot of surveying and a number of informal chats and the biggest need I’ve heard young people talk about is in transition periods of their life,’’ Charlie Bracey, Rural Youth Network Co-ordinator, says. “It’s finishing Year 12 and working out what to do and arriving at another regional town, [or] a bigger town or into Melbourne for university, or TAFE or employment and feeling displaced with no sense of community.’’
Youthrive Executive Officer Dr Maryann Brown adds: “Our young [rural and regional] people are very clear that that they don’t ever want to be seen that their lives are lived in deficit in any way…because they don’t have access to the same education and work opportunities.’’
For many rural and regional teenagers, their school are not large enough to offer the educational choices routinely available in many city schools. Specialized subjects catering to students’ particular interests and talents are often harder to support in resource-strapped country schools. And career choices can consequently become narrower. “Country schools do an amazing job… but the real need in rural and regional areas is to provide those opportunities that city kids or those at bigger schools get,’’ Maryann says.
The bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic added another layer of difficulty and revealed the barriers for rural and regional young people range from educational, to information and technology access, a shortage of mentors, to safe transport options. Together, the barriers represent a risk of social and physical isolation.
But with the new website, there are ways to increase engagement among young people about these issues and complement those on-line exchanges with events that will provide face-to-face interactions. It will enable connections to be made between youths across the state, to join groups, find events and identify volunteer and personal development opportunities.
The network has been four years in the planning and has grow organically from the Youthrive twice-yearly leaderships sessions where the need for such a resource emerged. Now, with support from the Helen McPherson Smith Trust, The Pierce Armstrong Foundation and Perpetual, the website is up and running.
“The Rural Youth Network is being developed to create a new blended type of community where rural young people can have the best of their local communities and social networks combined with online support and opportunities that can be provided by extensive online connections,’’ Maryann has said.
For Charlie, the network provides some powerful opportunities for many young Victorians to share what they have learned. “A lot of the people we’ve spoken to have come to the tail end of their journey of youth and what they’re excited about is being on the network and being able to offer support and advice to younger people going through what they’ve already been through,’’ Charlie says. “They say ‘I’m now in a position where I can share my journey, but I wish we had it five years ago when I started all those changes’.’’
The plan is to develop the network by hiring two part-time staff who can help organize a series of events, as well as manage the website. The first event is scheduled for next month.
At its heart, the Rural Youth Network is about building a cohort of resilient, connected and informed young people across rural and regional communities. They can then contribute to strengthening and developing their own communities.
“Let’s use the best of the online world with our real world and blend them together,’’ Maryann says. “Nowadays, because of the pandemic, it’s not so much about where I live but where I operate. You’re not just a random out there in cyberspace…you belong to a community that crosses the state.’’