There are lots of ways you could describe Jami Emerson: international student, start-up founder, mentor, chronic illness sufferer – and, as of December 2020, the 2020 NSW International Student of the Year – Higher Education.
The 27-year-old Bachelor of Information Technology student received the honour for her work as the founder of Chronic Hope, a Sydney-based organisation that offers health and wellness resources, as well as a sense of community, for people living with a chronic illness. She’s also the founder-in-residence for the Techcelerator Female Founder Mentoring Program, a program for entrepreneurial women at the University of Technology Sydney.
“I feel so honoured to have won this award,” she says.
“When I think about it in the context of all of the challenges I have overcome and everything I have been through, I feel so thankful to be here in Sydney and studying at ACU.”
This is the first time an ACU student has won the prestigious award, and ACU International Student Adviser Susan Cowin could not be prouder.
“We are so proud of and happy for Jami, our first finalist and winner of the hotly contested NSW Student of the Year Award (Higher Education).” She says.
“Since arriving in NSW, Jami has immersed herself in life both within and well-beyond the university. She has demonstrated dedication, leadership and integrity in all aspects of her life as a student, employee and CEO. Her significant accomplishments makes her a role model for all students, and her personal story is an inspiration to all in the wider NSW community. She is a true ambassador for ACU.”
Jami’s achievements are incredibly inspiring and perhaps even more so when looking at the path she has taken to get here.
Getting to this point in her life has been a long and winding road. At the age of 22, Jami was in a car accident that left her with serious injuries and – as she discovered later – chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), a condition that dominated her life for years. CFS is characterised by debilitating tiredness that doesn’t improve with rest.
At the time of the accident, she was visiting her family in the US, on holidays from Paris where she was living and studying a Bachelor of Economics. In the aftermath, she was too sick to continue her studies. She withdrew from her degree and returned to the US, spending the next two years recovering with the support of her family and friends. But by 2018, she was getting restless.
While Jami had always dreamt of moving to Australia, travelling across the world while struggling with a chronic illness seemed like a crazy thing to do. But after spending years waiting, it was a way of reclaiming her life and proving to herself that she was more than just her illness.
“I thought to myself, it’s now or never. If I have a health crash, I’ll fly home and that will be that, but I want to do this, because this is a dream that I’ve had,” she says.
She arrived in Sydney on a working holiday visa. It was during her first year in Australia that she started thinking about taking her experience of CFS and turning into something that could help others. In 2019, she launched Chronic Hope; the following year, she applied to study at ACU.
Her story resonated with the university: Jami received a scholarship that covered the full cost of her tuition, something she says has profoundly changed her life.
“I get emotional talking about it,” she says.
“That this university has seen my potential and what I’ve been through and said, ‘We’re going to believe in her and give this to her and see what happens’, I’m tearing up thinking about it.”
In fact, Jami and ACU turned out to be the perfect match. ACU is committed to the pursuit of knowledge, the dignity of the human person and the common good. Jami, through her work with Chronic Hope, and later as a Techcelerator mentor, has proven her commitment to giving back to the community time and time again.
“One of the things I love about ACU is their desire to empower students to have an empathetic mindset when it comes to their careers and having a positive impact on the world,” she says.
And having a positive impact is exactly what Jami is doing: through podcasts, blogs and original music, Chronic Hope is reaching an ever-growing audience of people living with chronic illness. The organisation also provides volunteer placements for international students, helping them build professional experience in a start-up environment.
Over at Techcelerator, Jami is taking the knowledge she’s gained through launching a start-up and sharing it with other young women with big ideas. Not bad for a student who’s just finished her first year of study.
Imagine what she could do next.
For more information on Chronic Hope, visit the website.