World awaits star student

HER story starts in New Norfolk, a modest home in Fairview and a simple primary education. Brittany Gittus grew up in a single-parent household, a pair of uncles for company and grandparents in the front room “My family was never rich,” she says. “But I think you develop resilience growing up in New Norfolk, an ability to pick yourself up after getting knocked down. And I’m grateful for that.”

Brittany credits the teachers who encouraged her at primary school, even now. “They faced down the challenges, and still managed to teach, to get us through. That’s where this all began.” In a few weeks, Brittany Gittus’ journey takes her to Oxford University, an advanced degree and a world-view very different from that of the child who grew up in the Derwent Valley 23 years ago. After New Norfolk Primary, her education moved to a daily bus trip from Boyer Road to Ogilvie High in Hobart. Even now, she remembers the long ride with fondness. “We had our own community on that bus,” she says. From high school, it was Elizabeth College, and then to UTAS, where she completed her BA with majors in History and Sociology, and a minor in Aboriginal studies. But another journey was also under way. Brittany says she’d begun to develop an awareness of the world beyond New Norfolk and the Valley itself.

“From about the age of 14, I’d see programs on topics like racial injustice and mandatory detention, even the Pontville Detention Centre, close to where we lived. My eyes were being opened.” At high school, she’d got into the Big Picture program, essentially an encouragement for high schoolers to go beyond their core subjects and get a foot in the workplace.

“I’d started to see a life beyond myself,” she says. “So I found a place with Red Cross, assisting newly arrived migrants. It was a reality check, an insight into what’s become my field of study.” That experience led to a three-week summer school two years ago at the University of Oxford in England. “Now that was intense!” she says. “History, politics and sociology classes and tutorials in the day, debates at nights, field trips at the weekend. Non-stop! “The cohort of students was together the whole time: breakfast, lunch and dinner. And all this in a college that housed JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis. The libraries are incredible, an amazing place to discuss our work and broader political events. I loved it.”

One particular course drew Brittany. “The history of refugees since 1901,” she recalls. “It was given by a brilliant professor passionate about the subject and so supportive of his students. “The study revolved around the Holocaust and genocide more broadly.” By the end of three weeks, Brittany had produced two 2500-word essays, and managed to top her classes, gaining first-class results. It was then she applied for a scholarship at the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation.

The foundation supports “outstanding, thoughtful, and imaginative young Australians to pursue graduate study at the world’s best overseas universities. She won a place, one of about 30 this year. “It is considered the most generous scholarship in Australia and will pay for my tuition and living expenses,” says Brittany, who was presented last month with the award by former Prime Minister John Howard. When classes in Oxford begin in a few weeks time, she’ll begin work on her Master’s degree.

Her subject matter is Britain’s reception of Jewish refugees in the period between the first and second world wars. “It’s important in terms of understanding the Ukrainian situation now, and the millions of refugees pouring of out of that country,” she notes. “It allows us to consider what have we learned from mass migration in the recent past and to try and find better ways to respond to these issues in the present.” She hopes to emerge with a Master of Studies in Modern European History before moving on to a PhD. But while her head may be in Europe and her research about the Middle East, her heart will be some 17,000km away in Tasmania.

When asked in a scholarship interview what she considered an example a good leadership, she didn’t need to look too far for an answer. “In circumstances that were less than ideal, my mother kept our family together,” says Brittany. “This woman was strength when required, softness when we needed it. She taught me the value of things and of ideas, encouraged me to seek self-belief and self-knowledge. “Ultimately, I want to be able to help kids like me, people from this Valley. I can show, first-hand, what a family can do, what education can do, and how kids can be empowered.”

As she’s planning her journey to Oxford University, there’s time for a cup of tea at The Cake Lady in New Norfolk. “I’m a tea kind of girl,” smiles Brittany Gittus. It’s a little custom that might come in handy in the weeks and months ahead.