As a 10-year-old surrounded by books at her mum’s workplace, Ashley Steele came to love reading and creative writing. But when a published story didn’t yield a worthy ending she would re-write it “with all the grace and humility of a young girl”. Reworking a plot would become familiar, but it would take other characters to complete the story.
With indecision settling on future plans post-school, Ashley found a job at Sydney Adventist Hospital and travelled when able. Tagging along on a friend’s mission trip to Cambodia changed her life. Inspired by the trip and the encouragement of a program director, but knowing she needed to learn skills in international development, Ashley resolved to look into options. But not at Avondale.
Christmas that year brought the presence of alumnus and friend Jorden Tually. His public announcement of her “plans” to study at Avondale played on her mind. She would go on to enrol in the course.
Yet the promises of making lifelong friends and loving life gave way to unmet expectations. Ashley felt anxious moving into the residence on campus and self-doubt grew as the pressure she placed on herself to maintain high grades mounted. Other students admired her bubbly, confident personality but mentally, something wasn’t right.
Relief arrived when Ashley met and began dating Kristen Stanton. Conversations were unfiltered yet comfortable. Kristen wasn’t phased at how Ashley experienced the world. “He was an amazing support,” she says. But during a class mission trip, Ashley experienced an emotional breakdown. The experience affirmed her passion for work in international development but the separation from loved ones was debilitating. She knew she needed to address the challenges to move forward in life.
In 2016, Ashley was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. She chose to share this news with her lecturers who became an integral part of her journey. Ashley was humbled by their commitment. “It’s obvious it wasn’t just a job for them. They cared about their students. They cared about me.”
Carolyn Rickett, Lynnette Lounsbury and Brad Watson navigated her studies, guiding her to online opportunities outside of Avondale or recording lectures so she could continue to study while living in Sydney with her family.
Home support provided spiritual nourishment while Ashley traversed her diagnosis and study. She travelled to Avondale once a week for classes she couldn’t take online. Her friendship circle adjusted social arrangements and basketball games to ensure she maintained connections.
Ashley returned to live on the Lake Macquarie campus for her final year in 2017. She had considered dropping out multiple times—academic stress was compounded by financial pressure. “I continued to work at the San during my holidays and joined [Cleaning Services director] Julie Michel’s team during semesters but that was never going to earn me enough money.” So, a family friend helped with fees. “I don’t know how I would have been able to complete my degree without their help.”
Graduation wasn’t just a degree for Ashley. “I worked incredibly hard, but I know I couldn’t have completed those years without the many people God placed in my life.” To sweeten the deal, Kristen proposed one week before graduation and they now live with their cats in Sydney. And Ashley has her dream job as media and communications coordinator for the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) Australia.
If this story has raised questions for you, help is available. Visit Beyond Blue at <beyondblue.org.au>. For crisis support or suicide prevention, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 (AU), 0800 543 354 (NZ), 1543 (Fiji), 3260011 (PNG) or Lifeline’s equivalent in your local country.
Rachel Humphries is Avondale University Alumni Relations Officer.