Being a rural student has always posed a unique set of challenges. But the COVID-19 pandemic shook things up like never before, with both positive and negative implications for students from rural and regional areas.
As a member of a community who was already recovering from the shock of the devastating bushfires, the past 12 months have lacked any sense of normalcy to say the least.
After what was a deeply economically and mentally tumultuous period, to be thrust into a complete lock down meant that we were isolated from any services that we can typically only access by travelling to major metropolitan areas or out of state.
As such, the period of lockdown merely exacerbated the flaws of a mental health system already in shambles.
I was already trying to balance the strain of impending end-of-school exams and the chaos that comes with finishing high school, so the extra burden was at times simply too much to handle.
The psychological impacts of an extended period of isolation from resources extend beyond what we consider "essential".
For many young people of minority groups, travelling outside of their own small and sometimes insular communities may be the only way to feel true freedom, safety and acceptance.
For me personally, the past year has had very little respite, outside of seeking the same experiences though a screen.
However, the reality of feeling so physically alone in every sense was a burden beyond what words could ever express.
When we're forced to diminish the size of the world we operate in, the world becomes ever more narrow and endlessly lonely.
Fortunately, not every aspect of lockdown was negative for us.
The ability to adapt and make-do is essential for any student studying in a rural or remote community, which very much worked in our favour.
For example, online classes were already a part of the typical schooling experience for many of us, who do not have the class numbers or resources available to complete all of our subjects in typical, on-site learning.
While being confined to our homes could be extremely isolating at times, there was a certain freedom to working from home.
Online learning enabled me to set my own schedule for work, relaxation and study.
Free from the bonds of a conventional school day, I ironically found myself working harder than ever before.
VCE became less of an ultra-competitive environment where students were trying to beat each other, and instead lifted each other up.
My peers and I banded together to support each other when dodgy internet connections and less time with teachers meant that normal questions took longer to be answered.
I encourage future cohorts, even with the return to on-site learning, to maintain this camaraderie as peer support is crucial to getting through year 12.
The transition of many resources to an online format allowed rural and regional students like myself to access things like open day events, specialised VCE lectures and other study materials, when they would have been in person in any other year.
This, of course, is with the caveat that you have a stable internet connection required to access these things.
In any other year, the hosting of these events would almost always take place in metropolitan areas, meaning an expensive trip which takes lots of preparation and time on transportation for rural and regional students.
In any other year, many of the resources I accessed to help me succeed would simply unavailable to me.
While there have been many positive changes for me, it also highlights the gaping inequality of the status quo for rural students compared to our metropolitan counterparts.
It is remarkable that it took a global pandemic for students like me to be able to access the same resources as students studying in Melbourne.
And even though I have finished high school, it remains to be seen what transitioning to adulthood in COVID-normal will be like. COVID-19 will continue to affect this generation of students.
When I start university in March, I don't know whether I'll be online, whether there'll be ongoing shutdowns, or how this will affect access to future opportunities.
So many young people from rural and regional communities who moved to Melbourne for further studies suddenly had to dash back when lockdowns happened.
Our plans and dreams as young people to become independent, finish our degrees, experience the wider world and land that dream job have all been placed on hold.
Despite the uncertainties surrounding the future, I remain hopeful many of the positive aspects of remote learning can be maintained.
If anything, the pandemic has taught us that much of what we dismissed as unattainable for ourselves, as students studying outside of the city, is attainable.
While my time as a high school student is now officially over, I give my best wishes to those continuing into the new year, and hope that the lessons we learned in lockdown can help bridge the inequality between rural students and our metropolitan counterparts.
Bri Hines is a young person who recently completed her secondary education. She is passionate about improving the accessibility of education for rural students.