If Year 12 student, Tom Belleggia, could go back in time and give his 12-year-old self the heads up about the next six years, he would urge him to be strong and be himself.

“Life will throw everything at you and people will try to tear you down,” he would say. “But this will make you stronger and more able to achieve your goals.

“So be yourself—it’s much more important than being what others think you should be and if you aren’t pursuing what you’re passionate about, perhaps you need to ask why you’re making certain choices?”

For Tom, being true to himself is leading him towards a career in the fashion industry—something he’s really excited about.

A love of fashion design, a flair for colour and an innate capacity to structure pieces of fabric to achieve a certain style, make this pathway feel very natural.

“My Nan actually taught me to sew without even realizing,” Tom says. “I was watching her closely. She was so surprised and impressed when I began to sew too.

Tom is one of those talented people who don’t always need to make a pattern.

Sometimes he can look at a piece of clothing, deconstruct it and see other ways to shape and combine the fabric pieces to create something novel.

“I also buy plus-sized clothes from op-shops so I can re-use the fabric,” he says.

Tom’s dream is have his own fashion label.

“I know it’s a very long-term goal,” he says. “I expect to start in retail—hopefully working for a label doing really creative and individual designs—and then work my way into a company where I can continue to progress.”

Tom is studying Art Fashion, and like many students on a creative pathway, he happily spends much of his down time on fashion projects.

“I’m always sketching clothes and developing new ideas,” he says, “trying to think of something no-one else has.”

One of Tom’s creations is presently on display in the Art Department and demonstrates both his creativity and his attention to detail.

Meanwhile his subject load is a great example of the flexibility open to BSSC students.

Enrolled at NETschool, Tom takes his Art Fashion class on the BSSC main campus and attends TAFE one day per week to study Make-Up and Beauty—a perfect complement to his fashion students.

Tom is relishing his Year 12 course and describes NETschool as “amazing, accepting and non-judgemental”.

Having mentors right on hand is what Tom had always wanted and being able to ask questions when they arise is perfect for him.

“Something clicked for me that first day at NETschool,” he says. “I knew I would be able to achieve here.”

Tom’s educational experiences have been varied. Primary school was generally a positive experience, but arriving for his first day in secondary college was overwhelming.

“I attended for about a month and never went back,” he says. “The open-plan classroom was the exact opposite of what works best for me.”

Tom manages a number of disabilities—dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, high-functioning autism and ADHD—all of which impact directly on his capacity to perform academically.

Dyslexia—in its various forms—makes completing academic tasks more challenging and can leave Tom feeling exhausted and, as he puts it, “brain dead”.

“I work best when there’s a teacher available nearby to assist me,” he explains. “That Year 7 classroom of around 100 students with four teachers left me completely lost.

“Mum has been my biggest supporter. She home-schooled me for all of Year 7.

With the assistance of a support worker, Tom managed Years 8, 9 and 10 by himself.

As part of the neuro-diverse community, Tom is also conscious that his high-functioning autism brings its own gifts.

“I have this ability to focus intensely on what I’m doing and to work happily until I’m done,” he says.

His greatest hurdles have always been around identity.

When he was small, Tom had no language to describe his sense of being different and assumed it must be related to his dyslexia.

As he matured he became great at adapting to situations and other people’s expectations, yet he never lost a deep commitment to seek out and express himself as an authentically gay man.

“Gender, to me, is not defined by an outfit and I make and wear what I love,” he says. “I’ve never hidden being gay and I think most people already assumed I was.”

While he may use the language now, difficult situations still arise. He almost got beaten up in the park a while back.

“I was wearing make-up and heels,” he says. “I guess I knew it would happen one day.”

All these challenges may have matured Tom beyond his years, but he is deeply grateful to many people who have had his back and encouraged him on his journey.

Coming out at the beginning of 2022 confirmed the great support he had, and continues to have, from friends, mentors and teachers.

If Tom could have a conversation with anyone in the world it would be US drag queen, RuPaul—one of the people who gave him permission to live outside the norm.

“I’d like to hear more of their story,” he says. “Sometimes it feels like the world is against me—everything can feel so difficult—but I just keep going.”