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Learning and Development

Chris Hastas

My name is Christopher Hastas, I’m 28 and I have recently begun a Master of Research. I work as a junior administrator at MDNSW. I live with Ullrich congenital muscular dystrophy and my interests include gaming, sport, music, learning and socialising. I live in Sydney, Australia. In this story I share my journey with tertiary education, and how it’s helped me find confidence, friends and meaningful work.  

I began my university journey in 2010 with a Bachelor of Business and Commerce at the university formerly known as the University of Western Sydney. I received mostly credits during my first two years but I struggled to meet new friends and interact with people. However, my experience was generally positive and I had motivation to learn and succeed. There was great support from friends and family to continue to pursue whatever I felt was my best option.

Chris with his Dean’s Medal, from Western Sydney University

Uni was a great challenge and I thought it was necessary for my future growth. On the down side I encountered a few moments of ableism, one in particular where I was not assigned a group from the teacher, in a small classroom activity. This exclusion was quite confronting and highlighted that even at a university level, exclusion for people with a disability still existed.

At the end of my second year, after completing two thirds of my course, I started to feel a great level of anxiety. I could not cope with the pressure I felt that came from the last few exams. I distinctly remember telling myself that once I finished my last exam in that semester, I was going to discontinue my study. The pressure and anxiety had overcome me, I had simply stopped my journey. I saw achievement in the fact I did not fail a subject, regardless of the fact I would not complete the last 8 subjects I had remaining. I had it in my head that I was never going to finish and I was able to accept that.

At that point I went on to become quite socially distant and play video games daily for the next three years of my life. I was quite content with how my time was spent, although I was not growing or maturing towards anything. Video games provided me with an avenue to speak to people and show me how people can perceive me, when my disability wasn’t so present in a conversation or interaction.

Towards the end of that period, I had an urge to pursue something more meaningful. After finding out that a Western Sydney University had a campus close to my house, which now offered my previous course, I decided to re-apply and complete my degree. I found out that my previous results had been accepted as advanced standing, meaning that I would not have to re-complete any previous subject.

In the second half of 2015, I returned to uni life. I made some more friends this time around, and felt like I had more of a presence inside the classroom. My marks slowly improved and I felt quite motivated. I finished with a credit average and was able to successfully graduate. The elation I felt at being able to finish was enormous. I proved to myself what I can actually achieve if I fully committed. No matter what would happen throughout the rest of my life I could feel a great sense of accomplishment about finally being a graduate. I was so proud of how far I had come. However, my journey had only just started.

In the second half of 2016 I would begin a Bachelor of Social Science, majoring in Sociology. I had found my passion. The subjects were all so interesting, informative and perception-altering. I could see the world from an entirely new perspective, which gave me incredible insight. My marks steadily increased to where I was averaging a distinction.

I was participating in almost every class, truly showing my hunger to learn and project ’the real me’ inside the classroom. I felt a level of collegial respect among my peers and teachers. Students would often come to me to ask questions and I gained a recognition that felt good, which further motivated me. Although I didn’t know my exact destination, I knew I was on the right path.

In 2017, I received the Dean’s merit award, which was given to those who achieved top 10% in the course over the year. That was only improved by receiving a Dean’s medal award, granted to those who achieve top 2% in their course for the year of 2018! I graduated with my second Bachelor degree at the end of 2018. This was quite an emotional moment, recollecting the year I was unable to continue my studies right up until graduating with a distinction average. I also attended an event to receive my dean’s medal in the middle of 2019. These events signalled moments of academic development, overall maturity and personal growth that really made me feel accomplished.

In the beginning of 2019, after finishing both degrees, I wasn’t sure of what was next. I decided to apply for jobs for a few months to see what would happen. After submitting multiple applications, and attending one interview, I decided to put that aside. I had put in an application to start a Masters of Research. I completed the very difficult, but rewarding first semester. I saw myself completing this two year degree and then progressing into professional academic life to begin a career. These thoughts were so new and refreshing, as I had once believed I would not pursue anything meaningful.

In the beginning of 2020, an opportunity for a job became available at Muscular Dystrophy NSW. This opportunity was too great to pass up. I am in the second semester of my Master of Research, as well as working at a fantastic organisation such as MDNSW. This is a life I could not previously imagine. I feel like a productive member of society, where I am respected by peers around me. I think this is a vital feeling as people can often think people with a disability do not have the capabilities to achieve the same as able bodied people.

In terms of tips for people wanting to further their study. I would say pick something that really interests you to study, and be open to the idea that your preferences might change and you might find interest in a different course along the way. I had access to disability services that would give me a plan to spread out my studies if I needed, however I wanted to remain as mainstream as possible. There are many helpful services that the uni can provide. Planning travel pathways is incredibly important to ensure you are able to get to all of your classes. Scheduling and planning your days and weeks, through organising a comprehensive map of what work is due and when. Overall, ensure you are able to have a healthy mixture of university work with social interaction.

I would also like to strongly recommend people with a disability especially, to engage with tasks that provide them with meaning in some way. University so happened to by my avenue. I believe it is important to be heard, not to sit back and watch. Get involved whether that is in a classroom, on the soccer field or society in general. I saw my involvement change the way people perceived me. No one is able to place restriction on what you should or should not be interested in. We all have our unique value and I believe we should show others our potential through engaging in a meaningful pursuit. Have a go!