A Labour of Love
Guy Boncardo’s Sicilian parents, Adamo and Francesca, worked hard their whole lives so their children could have the education and the opportunities that war and poverty had denied them. With a bequest to UNSW, Guy has made sure their dreams of a better future will be shared with generations of young Australians, for many years to come.
In 2011, Gaetano Boncardo, known as Guy, stood beside his elderly father at the graduation ceremony of his eldest son, from the University of Sydney. Guy’s mother, Francesca, had passed away ten years earlier, but his father, Adamo, was there to represent them both. It was a day that recalled another proud milestone, thirty-five years earlier, when Guy himself first graduated from UNSW, the first in his family to earn a university degree.
“I still remember my parents’ immense joy and their classic Sicilian pride in attending my graduation ceremonies,” says Guy.
Adamo and Francesca were born in Sicily and grew up during the years of the Great Depression. Tragically, the devastation of the Second World War followed. The poverty that surrounded them in childhood meant they did not have the opportunity to finish primary school. In 1952, when Adamo was 25 and Francesca just 20, Francesca’s father sold the calf he had gifted them at their wedding, and they used the proceeds to help pay for their travel to Australia.
Soon after arriving, they secured a lease on farming land at Kellyville, on the outskirts of Sydney, and established themselves as market gardeners. As a child, Guy helped his mother harvest the produce that his father would take by truck to the Growers Market in the early hours of the morning, every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. After returning from the market, Adamo would rest for a couple of hours before leaving for his evening shift at an iron foundry at Silverwater, arriving home at about midnight. Francesca and Adamo used their earnings to develop the market garden and the infrastructure of dams, drains and irrigation that serviced it.
At fifteen, when most of his peers were leaving school, Guy stayed on to on to pursue his studies. His interests were Technical Drawing, Metalwork, Maths and Science. This extended to Industrial Arts in his senior school years. His experience with helping his parents develop their farm, led to an interest in civil engineering.
“I wanted to keep studying I was keen. Engineering was in the blood by then,” he says. “I had made up my mind that Civil Engineering was what I wanted to do.”
Money was still tight at the time and Guy’s parents were not able to support his dream of a university education. His goal, then, was to make sure he finished in the top 5 percent of HSC results so he would qualify for a Commonwealth Scholarship. And he did.
“It made all the difference,” he says. “And it made my parents immensely proud and relieved. They could not stop talking about it!”
Guy studied the Engineering handbooks from the Sydney-based universities. His “critical review” led him to choose Civil Engineering at UNSW, a course that satisfied his desire for a degree that was pragmatic and relevant, but that also offered access to the humanities.
He endured a three-hour round trip to and from the Kensington campus every day, reading and working on his assignments during the commute, and then heading out to help his parents in the family’s market gardens once he got home. The bachelor’s degree, later overlaid with a Master of Engineering Science in Public Health Engineering, equipped him with the necessary credentials to launch and develop a near four-decade career in the NSW Department of Public Works. He became a Principal Engineer and specialist in the design and management of water and wastewater systems, sharing and developing his expertise on related infrastructure works across Australia and Southeast Asia.
“I learnt to see issues in perspective,” he says, reflecting on the drivers of his long-term success. “Issues arise all the time in engineering, but you must learn to critically analyse them, to stand back and ask, How important, relevant or critical is it? You can then work out your response in relation to that assessment. That comes with the experience in managing people and technical issues. It is not something you learn so easily in textbooks.”
After the passing of his father in 2013 (his mother had passed away twelve years earlier), Guy established the Adamo and Francesca Boncardo Equity Scholarship to honour their memory, and to give young people from financially disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to access the life-changing benefits of a university education. More recently, Guy has confirmed a Gift in Will to the University in his own name, ensuring that the scholarship program will continue to support five young people every year, in perpetuity.
“That’s very satisfying for me, coming from my background, where if I hadn’t won that Commonwealth scholarship, we probably wouldn’t even be having this conversation.”
Guy receives regular reports on the progress of students like Katherine Liu, who was awarded the scholarship in 2019. Katherine says the financial support she receives has made it possible for her to take advantage of extra-curricular opportunities, including roles with the Actuarial Society of UNSW, and the UNSW Business Society for Women, called Capital W.
“The scholarship has undoubtedly enriched my experience at the University,” says Katherine. “It has helped me grow so much as an individual. I have met such a diverse group of people and learnt about topics I have never dreamed about. I feel astounded thinking about how much I have learnt and changed in two years. But I am grateful for every bit of it.”
A few years ago, Guy took the opportunity to sit down with one of the scholarship recipients, and one of the UNSW team responsible for administering the program.
“It was enlightening to me,” he admits. She told me how happy she was to get the scholarship because she was able to finally buy a PC. She was from a single-parent family - a mother with six children - and they finally had a PC in the house, which they all now shared. That shocked me at first, and it made me think, Well, we are really doing something beneficial here.”
That student graduated two years ago, a milestone that Guy finds very satisfying.
Guy retired from NSW Public Works in 2013. Since then, he has worked as an independent consultant, advising on water and wastewater projects across New South Wales. He has also been an occasional guest lecturer at UNSW, and a mentor of engineering students, including a role in the UNSW Women in Engineering initiative.
The technical skills Guy accumulated during his years at university were valuable, of course, but he believes he owes his success, and his profound career satisfaction, to the uniquely humanitarian culture of UNSW.
"At UNSW I learnt far more than the art of being a good civil engineer,” he says. “UNSW, via the study of Humanities in the General Education programme, taught me to consider the social context and develop appropriate and affordable engineering solutions for every community in which I worked. In 1972, UNSW gave me something that no other university in Australia was giving their engineers back then - an appreciation of the human element in devising the most appropriate engineering solution to each situation.”
The Boncardo family story has given Guy a deep sensitivity to the injustices of poverty. And he knows that the dedication of his parents, and the quality of the education he received at UNSW with the support of a Commonwealth Scholarship, have put him in the privileged position of being able to offer support to those who need it most. In addition to his gifts to UNSW, he has also contributed funds to the University of Sydney to support pancreatic cancer research and Equity Scholarships, in recognition of the role the University played in the education of his wife and two sons.
“Knowing that I am assisting people who are disadvantaged, knowing that I can make the difference between them having an opportunity to attend university and not being able to do so, is immensely satisfying. In simple terms, it is a good feeling. Additionally, my parents have been appropriately honoured”.