Student high flyers honoured at ACU veterans awards

Earlier iterations would hardly recognise Kelly O’Leary, the former army private who has rebounded from multiple debilitating injuries to unearth a passion for learning, health and fitness. 

Kelly has been honoured as one of the recipients at Australian Catholic University’s inaugural Student Veteran Impact Awards. 

Higher education has not always agreed with Kelly who first enrolled in a Bachelor of Exercise Science course as a school leaver almost a decade ago. 

“I lasted a semester and bailed. It wasn’t for me,” she said of her first brush with university which preceded a four-year stint in the Australian Defence Force. 

A second glimpse at higher education through a more mature lens opened the door to a Bachelor of High Performance Sport course at ACU. 

Armed with a renewed drive formed from life experience, Kelly will at the end of this year complete her degree before continuing her career as a strength and conditioning coach. 

“After a few years I had the time and thought why not try part-time load and slowly work my way through it. It was the best decision I ever made,” she said. 

Soccer was Kelly’s first love but anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction surgery on both knees cut short her sporting career. 

The injuries also affected her work as a dispatcher out of RAAF Base Richmond, NSW, but her obsession with health and fitness would not abate. 

Returning to study has its challenges for ex-soldiers who can battle loss of identity in addition to the physical and mental scars levied by years of military service. 

ACU’s Student Veteran Services programs help remove obstacles to study and empower veterans’ success by providing admission pathways and a support network to ease their transition to civilian life. 

“I think the feeling of inclusion is the biggest thing,” said Kelly whose practical placements included a stint as assistant strength and conditioning coach at Brisbane City FC, a leading club in Football Queensland’s Premier League. 

“I like walking into uni knowing I’ve got a place here or can go upstairs to the student veterans lounge and chat to others going through the same thing.” 

General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove AK AC (Mil) CVO MC (Retd) will present a virtual address to guests and the seven recipients at the ACU Student Veteran Impact Award ceremony at Brisbane’s Hilton Hotel. 

The awards aim to recognise continuing and graduating student veterans who make significant contributions to the university and wider community. 

Nominees can also be recognised for community engagement such as SES, volunteer, fire rescue, homelessness support or social improvement programs.” 

Academic benchmarks, including a minimum GPA of 5.5, are among the criteria required for awards. 

Student Veteran Impact Awards recipients

Continuing (2020)

Daniel Hema (Bachelor of Education), Michael McLaughlin (Bachelor of Psychological Science), Aaron Cornwall (Master of Clinical Exercise Physiology)

Continuing (2021)

Ryan Hyde (Bachelor of Paramedicine), Lisa White (Bachelor of Psychological Science – Honours)

Graduating (2021)

Kelly O’Leary (Bachelor of High Performance Sport)

Nicholas Stanford (Bachelor of Paramedicine)


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