The following text is the ‘past student’ speech Wendy gave at the Maffra Secondary College end of year Presentation Night 15th December 2016.
I would like to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land Maffra stand on: the Brayakooloong people of the Gunaikurnai nation and pay respect to the elders past and present.
I’m back in Maffra tonight to celebrate the milestone of my youngest sister Louise completing her year 12. To her and her classmates, congratulations! Tonight marks both the close of one chapter of your life and the opening of a new one which holds more possibilities for you than any of us can imagine. Whether you sit there knowing what you’re going to do next year, or are still making up your mind – to you all, I’d say, take your time and know there are no ‘wrong ways’.
Each of our pathways are unique, and full of twists and turns – it’s all a process and we need each step to go on to the next one. What’s right for one person, will not be right for another. So really, it’s useless to compare ourselves with others. Of course it’s hard not to this week, with numbers on the tip of everyone’s tongue – but the system is deeply flawed for this gross simplification of your whole schooling! You can only, and you must, live your life for YOU. At times that will mean admitting mistake, failing, quitting something, throwing yourself at crazy opportunities, falling in love, having your heart-broken, getting lost, finding yourself again – these are very real aspects of life. And I am far from standing here pretending that I have it all figured out! I might be a few years ahead of you, but I am still very much finding my way – a process I’m unconvinced ever really ends. All I can say is, it’s only YOU who can ever know if you’re heading the ‘right way’. And you’ll know it by listening to your heart. If you can learn ‘who you are’ first, then being true to yourself gets easier.
Last time I took to this stage, it was as Dux of the college in 2008. I’ll now share a little of my chapter since then. First, I took a gap year working full-time as a dental nurse for an oral surgeon in Melbourne. Wearing hospital scrubs and assisting in real operations on patients in hospitals was very exciting for a young girl with medical aspirations! By the end of the year, I was itching to get to uni and finally meet all these new, smart friends waiting for me there!
I had started dreaming about Melbourne Uni at an early age – the grand stone buildings, the history, the privilege, the elite, the academia. I worked hard to enter myself into a world that I felt I’d fit better to, a world that seemed to be everything Maffra wasn’t. I gained entry into Biomedicine. The course was tough. While I continued to do fine, I was no longer the big fish in a small pond I’d been in Maffra – now I felt like a tiny fish that sometimes didn’t know how to swim! Looking back, I think I didn’t figure out study-life balance for a long time and this caused me a lot of stress, anxiety, lack of sleep and at times stopped me from having fun.
Anxiety is something very real, that I’m sure many of the year 12’s have felt at points throughout this year. It’s important to invest time into finding out how you best relax – this has taken me a long time to figure out! It can seem totally counter intuitive to learn that slowing down is actually the best way to make yourself be able to keep going and enjoy what you’re doing. No studies or job will ever be more important than your health – take time to care for yourself every day.
I did meet amazing people at Melbourne Uni, but not in my biomedicine classes, as I had expected. My best friends were from my residential college, where I found myself drawn to the arts and music students – perhaps a telling sign! Eventually, I moved into a share house with some of these people. Actually, the formal classes of uni are perhaps just 50% our education. Things like living with other people, keeping a functioning house, feeding yourself, working, sometimes very unglamorous jobs – these are also a huge lessons of the chapter that lie ahead of you. Don’t ever feel that you’re above anyone else, just because you’re attending university. I stand before you as former dux of the college, but also as a former waitress, theatre cleaner, childcare minder, and outback petrol station cashier – you are incredibly privileged for your access to education, but you are not above anything.
I did graduate my bachelor of biomedicine. However, this is not the achievement that I want to speak about tonight. The achievement I am more proud of, came in the form of a big quit. I entered into Masters studies after my bachelor, encouraged by lots of highly qualified people who gave me lots of compliments. I found myself in a laboratory researching a project that was theoretically very interesting. However, in practice, it was very repetitive, required me to visit the lab over the weekend and was socially isolating. It was the most unhappy I’ve ever been. While I knew in the long run, my work had the potential to help many people, in the short-term I felt a thousand miles away from helping people – which is what had drawn me to biomedicine in the first place. After 6 months, I realised I could quit and that idea felt so right, I knew I couldn’t continue. It was incredibly intimidating to go to my supervisor, who was the head of a department at Melbourne University and break my news. To this day, I know this is the most courageous I’ve ever been. I want to clarify, I am not at all saying that scientific research is a bad career pathway – I am simply saying, it wasn’t the right pathway for me. And if you ever feel yourself at a similar point, it’s going to be okay 🙂
Quitting my Masters was the biggest turning point in my life. For the first time, I felt completely free to steer my life in any direction I chose. I often think it’s funny that I could be so ‘intelligent’, but not be smart enough to realise that only ‘doing what you love makes you happy’. I didn’t really know what I was passionate about – as perhaps it hadn’t really been science, like I’d been trying to convince myself for a long time. So I started the sure best way to figure out what actually turns you on – I started volunteering. I found a bunch of interesting projects and organisations happening around my local suburb and started getting involved. Everything from tutoring refugee high school students, to being a telephone counsellor for Lifeline Australia, to packing organic veggie boxes.
Eventually I found Lentil As Anything, an amazing organisation running a chain of pay-as-you-feel restaurants. It was a beautiful time for me and I learnt huge lessons – mainly that I didn’t need to be a highly qualified person to start helping people. In fact, Lentils showed me that the simple act of bring over a coffee to someone with a smile and having a chat with them had the power to turn their day around, much more than any biomedical cure. I realised there was a remedy to the isolation and loneliness I’d been hearing down the phone line at Lifeline – and that was an inclusive community. I saw so many people from all walks of life benefit from contact with this organisation, and if you haven’t yet visited –I invite you to the Abbotsford Convent next time you’re in Melbourne. As tends to happen, when you’re following your heart – opportunities opened for me at Lentils, and soon I became a restaurant manager and the volunteer coordinator. The money was humble, but it was all I needed for my simple life. And I was being fed in so many ways.
After a year, I decided it was time for me to head out into the world and continue my education in a very different way to university: through travel. Right before my departure from Melbourne, I met Jurek and somehow I knew I should invite him along on my travels.
Together we started Drop The Tension, a conscious travel project that is a blog and was a journey that saw me travel from my home here, to Jurek’s home in Poland without flights. Along the way, we met with local groups trying to bring about changes for a more human-friendly world. It took us almost 18 months to cross half the world without a plane. Instead, we chose to hitchhike as much as possible and tapped into hospitality networks like CouchSurfing instead of staying in hotels – because this is the best way to meet local people of all walks of life. It is also the best way to prove to yourself that the world is actually full of an overwhelming majority of good people, and that unlike what the media tells us, the world is still a safe place. I learnt more in this journey than I had in my whole 3 years at university. I learnt new languages. I learnt the history and current situation of countries as different as East Timor and Russia. I had my first conversation with an indigenous Australian. I learnt to accept the hospitality people offered us and to share whatever I could with them. But most importantly I learnt that our cultural differences are only the outer most layer of our humanity – and that things like friendship, family and sense of humour are universal.
Now, I’m at the other end of that journey – which feel full circle standing here tonight, the same building where I got my measles injection as an infant, preformed in Maffra Primary School productions, attended Red Light Discos and sat my exams! I’m now living in Poland with Jurek, where I’m learning the language and teaching English to adults and children. I continue writing our blog Drop the Tension, promoting ethical travel, as well as responsible self and community development. I attended and spoke at my first international conference this year – not a scientific one, like I may have imagined, but about youth action against corruption. I am thinking about starting studies in global development, anthropology or education or some intersection between the 3 – but I’m not quite there yet. And I’m in no hurry. I’m far from rich, but my needs are small and I’m happy and I know now I’m right where I need to be in my life. Because life isn’t a race. It’s not a competition. It’s not about the end point. It is about the journey. It’s about connecting with the people you meet along the way and living with an open heart. It’s not always easy. But if you’re following your passions, you’ll be amazed what doors will open for you. Don’t be scared to change your mind. Be brave and question your motives. Learn from the world, be open to challenging your ideas and forever broaden yourself. You’ll see it’ll all be just fine.