“We know how much havoc COVID has wreaked and what we have noticed is that lower socio-economic communities have been disproportionately affected,” she said.
Ms Walker said a standout theme in students’ application essays was parental job loss. Forty-eight per cent of applicants were refugees while 15 per cent lived in precarious housing.
Victoria University Secondary College students Zamzam Ahmed said she and her family jumped around the room when she found out she had won a scholarship.
One of 10 siblings, she said she would use her grant money to set up her own private study space at home.
“Usually when I study there’s a lot of noise in the background,” she said. “This will help me get ready to do well in exams in year 12.”
Her classmate Jordan Zammitt was also awarded a scholarship and said he felt he had done himself and his family proud.
“It’s really changed the end of our year and really brightened up this year for me,” he said. “I feel much safer and more confident.”
Their principal Elaine Hazim said she was not surprised numbers of scholarship applications had soared.
“I thought it made sense because of the pandemic and the hardship all these parents are going through,” she said.
“The stories (the students) put in about what they’re going through touched all of us. They really deserve it.”
To meet the surging demand, Ms Walker said 35 scholarships were awarded, four more than last year, and a new highly commended category was created to award a laptop to an additional 25 students.
“Because of that increase it was the most difficult year to select; every student who applied stood out for the disadvantage they’ve had to face from a young age,” Ms Walker said.
“We want to see them nurtured.”
Rebecca Willmott, manager of the Brotherhood of St Laurence Transition to Work program, said she had seen disadvantaged youth significantly affected throughout the year.
“We’ve started to see secondary schools reaching out to us to start to work with young people who haven’t been able to re-engage with school,” she said.
“We’ve been supporting schools with connecting to their young people, and talking about their options for making education a primary focus in 2021.
“It hasn’t been a fantastic year, but I’ve been glad to see young people are trying to find and take up opportunities.”
Anna is an education reporter at The Age.