Award-winning law student keeps tracking through pandemic challenges

Next time you settle at the kitchen table to work or study, slippers on, cuppa made, spare a thought for Tracey McDonald, who is travelling 25km from home to the tiny Bunnaloo hall and oval, just to get internet connection.

“That’s a 50km-round trip for each Zoom session,” says the Bendigo Campus law student. Still, studying online has cut down her travel!

Tracey lives on a broad acre dryland cropping farm between Barham and Deniliquin. With the NSW border closed and remote studying in place, she’s overcoming some unique challenges to continue her law degree. But it’s paying off.

This month Tracey became one of 92 Bendigo Campus students to be acknowledged with an award or prize from a pool of $74,350. In this case, the Robertson Hyetts Prize.

The Bendigo-based law firm has sponsored the award for the student who performs with excellence in rural and regional law and legal practice for many years, as the partners see the value in supporting regional Victorians in their study of law.

“It is important to foster new law students in Bendigo so that these students can choose to study in regional locations and then continue on to also work in regional areas,” they say, which is Tracey’s aim.

“I’m still in a bit of shock over it, I have to say,” Tracey says. “I’ve always tried my best to get good marks, but part of my isolation is that I don’t have a good idea of where I sit in the class.”

Tracey is three-quarters of the way through her degree, and her goal to work as a lawyer assisting the rural, regional and often remote communities in her district. “The further north you go into Deniliquin or other border towns like Kerang and Swan Hill, you’ll see they’re terribly under resourced,” she says.

Before settling into farm life and having her family, Tracey studied an Honours Degree in Women’s Studies. She says she always intended to return to university.

Following two major droughts, the changing demands of her farm commitments, and her two children settling into primary school, Tracey felt the time was right to continue her tertiary studies. She came to a Bendigo Campus open day, with the idea to study psychology. But then she got talking to the law lecturers.

A year later she enrolled in law/psychology, eventually dedicating herself to law, she loved it so much. “I love the intellectual challenge, the content, and the extra understanding of how the law works, which when you run a farm or any business, is really handy to know,” she says. “But ultimately I’m hoping it will lead to a career.”

Last year Tracey interned with the Loddon Campaspe Community Legal Centre in Bendigo. “I pretty much spent the whole time in court, and I loved it,” she says. “Most of the clients were domestic violence victims, so it really piqued my interest in helping women. I’m looking forward to finishing and getting involved.”

In the meantime, with the renewed motivation thanks to her award, Tracey is making the most of her time left studying.

“The internet service is the biggest challenge, definitely. When I first started my law degree, in the first week I was dropping out so much I think I was in tears ten times that week. But you just learn to live with it.

“Another hurdle I face is the amount of time I spend in the car. With two teenagers heavily into sport I drive 2000 km a week; 500 of those is just to the school bus stop and back, which is 25 km away.”

Tracey spends the time at her teen’s sports training and the likes catching up on her uni reading. And the hours spent by the Bunnaloo oval? “At least I’m assured privacy and no interruptions!”

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