A career journey spanning three countries has led Leading Aircraftman Tajinder Kumar to fulfil a lifelong goal of completing university studies and becoming an engineer.

Growing up in India, he moved for work to the United Arab Emirates and eventually Australia, where he became an avionics technician on the C-130J Hercules transport aircraft at RAAF Base Richmond.

A long-held ambition to study engineering at university was made possible however after he was awarded the Lipshut Family Bursary in March 2016.

The bursary is awarded each year to an enlisted member of the Air Force up to the rank of corporal and provides financial sponsorship to complete a full-time undergraduate degree.

In 2020, he completed a Bachelor of Engineering through the University of NSW and begins Officer Training School in August.

For Leading Aircraftman Kumar, the bursary represented an opportunity that existed just outside his reach since his childhood in India.

"I was born in a family where my brother and I had to share a pair of thongs for school, so having a second pair of shoes was actually my dream as a kid," Leading Aircraftman Kumar said.

"People say you can't buy happiness with money, [but] I somewhat disagree with this statement. I saw my family struggling just to meet day to day needs and our education due to poverty, and money would have definitely added happiness to our lives."

As a young man, he saw that doctors, lawyers and engineers were among the highest-paid professions in India and dreamt of becoming one. 

"My interest in mechanical and electronics as I was growing up allowed me to decide which stream I would excel at," Leading Aircraftman Kumar said.

"They could not hold their tears when I broke this news to them about my successful completion of an engineering degree and selection to become an officer in the Air Force."

Leading Aircraftman Kumar grew up in Ludhiana, a city of about 1.6 million people in India's north.

The city is a manufacturing hub in the state of Punjab and his older brother could only attend school until year 7 before he needed to take a job to support his family.

Leading Aircraftman Kumar, however, was able to complete year 12 and wanted a career that would help his family.

"I wanted to study further at the university and complete an engineering degree," he said.

"Due to family circumstances and no financial ability to support my studies, I had no choice but to work full time to help family with day-to-day needs."

He completed the equivalent of a Certificate III in Mechanical Engineering and qualified as a mechanical technician, being paid about $70 a month.

In 2002, financial constraints forced him to turn down studies for a Diploma in Mechanical Engineering, and instead he relocated to the United Arab Emirates in 2003.

As a machine maintenance technician with a glass bottle factory in Dubai, he was paid a monthly salary of $350.

The salary continued to support his family in Ludhiana.

"I was awarded employee of the quarter for my efforts, which in turn gained the attention of a manufacturing plant located in Australia," Leading Aircraftman Kumar said.

This began an 18-month process of migrating to Australia, a move which cost him two years of his savings.

But when he migrated in January 2009, he discovered the job for which he'd been courted had been filled.

"Whilst looking for work I saw an advertisement to join the Royal Australian Air Force," Leading Aircraftman Kumar said.

"The advertisement boasted of opportunities to be paid whilst you study. As I have a passion for aviation, I thought this was the greatest opportunity that could possibly be ever open to me.

"In May 2009, I submitted my application to join the Royal Australian Air Force and in March 2010 I walked through the front gates of RAAF Base Wagga as a new Air Force recruit."

After recruit training, Leading Aircraftman Kumar underwent initial employment training as an avionics technician.

In March 2012, he was posted to No. 37 Squadron at RAAF Base Richmond to work on the C-130H and C-130J Hercules transport aircraft.

The Hercules is an airlift backbone for the Australian Defence Force, carrying personnel and cargo on operations to frontline airfields across the globe and returning them safely.

But in May 2012, the government announced the sudden decision to retire the older C-130H fleet in November of that year.

The move led many technicians – including Leading Aircraftman Kumar – to be posted into No. 84 Wing Detachment A, a holding pool for technicians until they could be posted on to other squadrons.

Leading Aircraftman Kumar used the time to apply for the Lipshut Family Bursary as a pathway towards full-time study at university and continued his studies where able.

"I completed a one-year full-time equivalent study using DASS (Defence Assisted Study Scheme) between 2014 and 2016," he said.

In the meantime, he'd took some important steps.

In 2012, Leading Aircraftman Kumar returned to India to marry his wife, Manpreet, who joined husband in Australia in 2013.

In 2015, Leading Aircraftman Kumar was posted back to No. 37 Squadron to work on the C-130J Hercules and in March 2016, he was announced as the recipient of the Lipshut Family Bursary.

"I was awarded a three-year civil schooling scholarship to study Bachelor of Electrical Engineering at University of NSW and enrolled from July 2017 to May 2020," he said.

"Around 20 years later, I was pursuing my dream profession in one of the top universities in world and I believe I was one of the richest students in the university."

Restrictions under CoVID-19 sadly put a dampener on graduation celebrations and no members of Leading Aircraftman Kumar and his wife’s family live in Australia.

In 2019, his parents visited him and his wife to see their son studying until 2am.

"My parents never went to school and they could not understand what an engineer or commissioning means," Leading Aircraftman Kumar said.

"They knew that I am working hard for something, and I always told them how important this is for me.

"They could not hold their tears when I broke this news to them about my successful completion of an engineering degree and selection to become an officer in the Air Force."

Leading Aircraftman Kumar said he was grateful for the support he'd received throughout his journey.

"I would not have achieved this without the help and support of my wife, friends and mentors, teaching and blessing of my parents and my spiritual true master," he said.