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The tale of two engineers

25 October 2022

A daughter's gift to the next generation

There are many ways we can choose to remember the people we love, but for John Alan Gibson, his legacy was best celebrated by supporting the next generation of rural students to pursue engineering at Sydney.

The J Alan Gibson Scholarship was established in 2021 by his daughter, the late Elizabeth Jamieson Gibson, left as a gift in her will. The family says Elizabeth felt strongly about rural students having the opportunity to pursue higher education as a result of the opportunity that was awarded to her father.

J Alan Gibson with his daughter Elizabeth Jamieson Gibson.

As the son of a fifth-generation farming family in the western Riverina region of New South Wales, John Alan Gibson (known as Alan) was smart and ambitious with a natural curiosity. He dreamt of doing something with his life outside of farming, so when he was selected amongst his class at Hay High School to be the recipient of a scholarship that would enable him to pursue his academic interests at the University of Sydney, it was a life-changing moment for his family.

In 1923, he enrolled in engineering, returning home at the end of his studies to carry out a successful career as an engineer, grazier and lobbyist. His education, leadership and commitment to issues relating to reliability and access to water made a significant contribution to the region over his lifetime.

His daughter Elizabeth had always described the opportunity he had to study at the University of Sydney, some 720km from Hay, as a breakthrough moment. Without the scholarship, Elizabeth was certain that her father would not have had the choice to walk his own path or realise his full potential. It was the reason that she wanted to establish a similar opportunity in memory of him.

Elizabeth spoke extensively with her family about the vision she had for creating a legacy that would pay it forward to the next generation. The J Alan Gibson Scholarship was established to provide financial support and encouragement to rural students with the dream and drive to study engineering at Sydney.

Last year, when her vision became a reality and the J Alan Gibson Scholarship was awarded to commencing engineering undergraduate Charlie Hawthorne, the family were delighted.

“When we found out he was from the Riverina, I was really thrilled. There is a lot of similarity between the two” said Claire, the granddaughter of Alan.

J Alan Gibson Scholarship recipient, Charlie Hawthorne.

Like Alan, Charlie comes from an established farming family in the western Riverina region. His hometown of Ardlethan is located approximately 500km from Sydney, with a population of approximately 400 people. Also like Alan, Charlie’s curious mind has enabled him to excel in STEM subjects at school, leading him to enrol in the University’s double degree Bachelor of Engineering Honours and Bachelor of Commerce.

For rural students like Charlie and Alan, achieving the marks to access a top ranked university like the University of Sydney is just the first hurdle. Relocating to cities far from their homes without their support networks adds additional challenges.

Besides his sister, Charlie says he doesn’t know of anyone else at the University of Sydney that comes from where they do in the western Riverina region. He says, the main barriers preventing rural students from attending a metropolitan university is living away from home and the cost.

“It is a big jump to be able to support yourself in Sydney. I also think if you’re not used to that kind of lifestyle people tend to stay where they are comfortable, so many rural students choose regional universities to stay closer to home.”

Without the financial pressure of high accommodation fees and living expenses, Charlie says he has been able to transition well, focusing more on his studies and expanding his networks by embracing all that college life has to offer.

Charlie (far right) with his university friends.

“I have met and become close friends with people from all over Australia and the world. I play cricket and rugby for my college, and I am planning to start playing AFL at the end of this semester. It’s been very fun.”

After completing his flexible first year in engineering, Charlie has recently switched his stream from mechatronics to civil engineering, bringing his likeness to Alan even closer.

Charlie looks forward to semester break when he can go back home to help on the family property, but looking to his future, he says he likes having options.

“I feel like I’ve got lots of opportunity with doing the double degree of commerce and engineering and also having the option of coming home”, he says. “I’ll probably stay in Sydney at the end of my studies, but I don’t think I will lose the connection to home. Whether than means returning to work on the farm 30 years down the track, it’s not 100 percent clear now. I’m just seeing where it all takes me.”

Though much has changed in the hundred years since John Alan Gibson first set foot on campus to study engineering in 1923, undertaking that daunting journey from rural New South Wales to Sydney feels much the same today for students like Charlie.

Alan’s granddaughter, Claire, says the scholarship is a fitting reflection of Alan’s life and Elizabeth’s belief in education and opportunity.

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