James Harris says that when you’ve struggled with the challenges he’s faced in life, ‘you get used to people writing you off’ as someone who is ‘not going to amount to anything’. But ‘I fought back,’ the ACU masters student and Clemente program graduate says with a smile. ‘I’ve always believed that my intellect is my best weapon.’

Having struggled with a condition known as generalised anxiety disorder (or GAD) since he was six years old, study has always presented bigger challenges for James than for most people.

He received his early education at St Thomas More Primary School, Hadfield, and Buckley Park Secondary College, Essendon, in Melbourne’s north-western suburbs, finishing his VCE in 1996 and going on to study at TAFE, where he completed qualifications in business and legal practice and in tourism management. Producing a 26-page business plan as part of the tourism course was a landmark achievement for him at the time. ‘It was the first time that I’d achieved anything like that,’ he recalls.

Despite the hurdles that his condition has placed in his path, James has always had a strong desire to contribute to his community and make a difference.

As a lifelong parishioner at Corpus Christi Parish in Glenroy, having grown up in the neighbourhood, he is an enthusiastic participant in parish life and reads regularly at Mass.

For the past 25 years, he has also hosted his own radio program, ‘Midday with James Harris’, on community radio station North West FM. Each Saturday, from 11am to 1pm, he presents a documentary-style program exploring the music and backstory of a different contemporary artist or group, as well as giving an update on the Australian Top Ten music charts. It’s a role that has allowed him to grow in confidence and share his interest in popular music with a wider audience.

James’ journey with university education began more recently, though, about 10 years ago, when he heard about the Clemente program.

People like me, we tend to demonstrate a certain amount of ambivalence about trying new things. But my psychologist saw the potential in me. She said, ‘James, you can do this.’

Clemente Australia—a joint initiative of CatholicCare Victoria and the Australian Catholic University (ACU)—provides crucial support to students who might otherwise struggle to manage in a university environment, empowering them with the skills, knowledge and confidence they need to transform their lives through tertiary study. The academically approved ‘bridging course’ supports marginalised students to complete four subjects (such as history, literature, philosophy and art), earning them a certificate in liberal arts and, for those who wish to continue, credit towards an undergraduate degree.

The purpose of the program, James says, is to show disadvantaged students—who might be struggling with difficulties such as mental health issues, addiction, homelessness, disability or imprisonment—that ‘university is always possible’ and that while tertiary study is a challenge, ‘if you’ve got the commitment and the dedication to it, you can succeed.’

James admits, ‘I haven’t always had the highest self-esteem’, and when his psychologist Lara first told him about the Clemente program, it took her six attempts to convince him to give it a go. ‘People like me, we tend to demonstrate a certain amount of ambivalence about trying new things,’ he explains. ‘But the thing is, she saw the potential in me. She said, “James, you can do this.” And she introduced me to Gerard.’

Gerard Koe, a counsellor from CatholicCare, was assigned as a mentor to James in 2014 when he first enrolled in the program, and the two have been talking fortnightly ever since. As James points out, ‘with anxiety, it’s not the type of thing that you can just get over. It’s an ongoing process. But it’s been worth it … I would give a significant part of the credit to Gerard … in terms of helping me to survive at university.’ (ACU’s Access and Disability Service has also helped him, he says.)

Gerard drew on his professional experience as a counsellor working with marginalised communities, as well as his experience of being a university student himself, to provide James with the practical and emotional support that has proved so important in helping him come as far as he has with his studies. ‘He’d been through it himself,’ James says of Gerard. ‘I had to put in the work—that was obvious— [but] he was very dedicated. He was always very particular about deadlines, not wanting [me] to be late for an assignment—always had a “no procrastination” rule, meaning that … whenever I was tasked with an assignment, I would want to get on to it as soon as possible.’

University isn’t just like a pool that you can dive into and start swimming automatically. It does take getting used to.

James still recalls how great he felt when, for an art appreciation subject, his lecturer gave him 100 per cent for a presentation he did on expressionism. And at the Clemente graduation ceremony at Melbourne’s ACU campus, James was invited to give ‘a sort of farewell speech’, for which he received a standing ovation. ‘It was fun a day, one of my best memories,’ he says.

With his confidence boosted by his experience in the Clemente program, James took the plunge and enrolled in a bachelor of theology degree at ACU, an undertaking that involved ‘at least five years of work’ and that required him to confront a range of significant challenges.

‘University isn’t just like a pool that you can dive into and start swimming automatically. It does take getting used to,’ he says, admitting that undergraduate study ‘did come with its highs and lows’. For example, he says, ‘I had to learn to deal with hypersensitivity in terms of getting feedback from my lecturers. I was sensitive to that sort of thing. But luckily, as I said, I had Gerard. He is, I would say, with absolute conviction, Melbourne’s best counsellor.’

Since it was the middle of COVID, James’ degree was initially mailed to him, but given the obstacles he had overcome, he felt that it was important to graduate in person at ‘an actual graduation ceremony—you know, for its symbolic value’ and because, ‘as I said, when you come from a background like mine, … it can be a surprise to get that far.’ The graduation ceremony was held at the Melbourne Convention Centre and livestreamed. James was the only student to graduate in person. Graduating with his bachelor of theology, James says, ‘was like finishing a marathon, but it was definitely worth it.’

You don’t want to be sitting on the sidelines and then regretting it later because you never gave it a shot. It is kind of like being at the top of the 10-metre diving platform.

Initially attracted to studying theology as a way to equip him for evangelisation—’I wanted to be able to explain my faith to someone who might not necessarily understand what the Catholic faith would be about,’ he says—James also enjoys the intellectual challenge theology presents, not just to understand it but to communicate it effectively. Part of the academic pursuit, he points out, is ‘having the ability to impart knowledge, not just gain it, but to impart it.’

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Having now enrolled in a master of theological studies, the bar has been raised again for James as he prepares to take on a research project that will require him to design a question, undertake significant research and communicate sophisticated theological concepts in the form of a 12,000-word essay. He will be paired with a supervisor and has been set some preparatory assignments to help ease him into it. Nevertheless, ‘I have to admit to a certain level of nervousness and anxiety,’ he says, ‘because the most I’ve ever done would be like a 2000-word essay. I can do those. This is asking me to do a lot more than that.’

The nerves are worth it, he says, if the experience helps him answer ‘a fundamental question, which is: Can I do it? And if so, how well can I do it? Because … you don’t want to be sitting on the sidelines and then regretting it later because you never gave it a shot. It is kind of like being at the top of the 10-metre diving platform. But I know this: if I dropped out or if I had never attempted [it], I would never get an answer to the question.’

James admits that he can be ‘a bit of a perfectionist’ and is tormented at times by doubts. He wants to believe in himself, but pointing to his head, he says, ‘When you’re like me, you have demons in here that can try and make you think otherwise … They wrap you up in fear.’ He’s determined to overcome those fears, though, and to prove to himself and others ‘that I’m not biting off more than I can chew’.

That’s why I’m grateful to ACU, because you can spend so much of your early life not knowing who you are. And they helped me to see who I am.

He is already formulating ideas for his masters research project in the field of church history. ‘I want to highlight a number of well-known martyrs in a historical context, so basically how they coped with knowing that they were about to die and the effect their deaths have on others in the faith,’ he explains, and ‘how their deaths mirrored the death that Jesus suffered on the cross’. He is particularly interested in the martyrdom and influence of St Thomas More, and if he has space, he would like to include a section on the Swiss guards who gave their lives defending the Vatican during the sack of Rome in 1527.

What attracts him most about this subject matter ‘is the heroism—you know, the stories of heroes who can inspire, [and] make us want to be more than we are’—a theme that resonates with his own story of persevering in the face of what have sometimes felt like overwhelming odds.

James has a particular concern for people who face struggles like his own. Every time he prays the Rosary, he dedicates a decade to people with mental illness, and he hopes others will be inspired to take the leap and enrol in the Clemente program when they hear his story.

It’s a story that is far from finished. He and Gerard have discussed whether, when he completes his masters, and all going well, he might even attempt a doctorate—something he describes as ‘the ultimate challenge’.

Despite the discouragements of his early years—and although he still wrestles with nerves and doubts—James now feels comfortable calling himself ‘an intellectual’.

‘And that’s why I’m grateful to ACU,’ he says, ‘because you can spend so much of your early life not knowing who you are. And they helped me to see who I am.’