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Jacaranda, quadrangle
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Fulbright Scholarship for Philosophy Alumna Hannah Orban

8 June 2021
Why a philosophical approach is important, personally and professionally.
Hannah Orban, Philosophy Honours graduate, talks about her journey from Arts degree and NSW Govt graduate program working on initiatives for students with disability, to a Fulbright Scholarship at the University of Michigan.

Recently, I was awarded a Fulbright Future scholarship to study a Master of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. This is a wonderful opportunity that I take with both hands.

It may come as a surprise that it was not studying STEM that led me here. My path to this point was not through the Business School or the Chemistry building, but through the Quadrangle and past the Jacaranda.

The arts and humanities have always appealed to me. At the University of Sydney, I completed majors in PhilosophyItalian Studies and Art History, followed by an Honours year in Philosophy.

I now work on initiatives for students with disability at the NSW Department of Education after completing the NSW Government Graduate program.* I never thought I would become a public servant, or study philosophy, or that philosophy would lead me to the public service. How peculiar life is!

Philosophy’s unwavering commitment to understanding, to questioning, considering and logically analysing, to resisting cynicism in favour of humility, to rejecting dismissive simplifications and instead embracing complexity, to accepting that we may not have an answer now, but there’s much we can discover while looking for one – this philosophical approach is one of the most important things I learned at university, both personally and professionally.

The things that drew me to philosophy are the things I continually use in my work in the public service: pulling apart ideas to see what assumptions they rely on, what values they uphold, what their logical outcomes are and how to test them with rational argument are some of the powerful tools that philosophy gave me.

‘Sparring’ in tutorials was a great way to practice these skills, especially when bested by my peers, who were gracious in victory and defeat. Learning in collaboration with peers is good practice for the workforce, where listening, compromising and working together on shared tasks is a daily activity.

These tools of philosophy are essential to good government. It is the public service’s role to give frank and fearless advice to governments about policies and programs that impact the lives of millions every day. When I hear a policy idea presented in Parliament, or read recommendations, or consider program models, my capacity to question, think critically and imagine logical outcomes is crucial for testing options and persuasively arguing for the best possible solution.

I am indebted to my supervisor David Macarthur, for teaching me how to do this. David taught me the invaluable lesson of the importance and technique of asking questions as a method of truly understanding a problem, which has been invaluable to my day-to-day work, whatever position I’ve held.

My undergraduate study has been instrumental to my pursuit of improving lifelong outcomes for people with disability through policy. For too long people with disability have been hindered from enjoying the socioeconomic equality in our modern democracy. Applying my training to policy in Australia and the US is my motivation to work in government.

This is a very personal project for me as well. Two of my brothers were born with intellectual disabilities, yet time and chance could have dictated that I was born with an intellectual disability. For a long time, I have known that they would not have the same opportunities as me, but that they might not have equitable opportunities either. Knowing this, it is my goal to improve the lives of people with disability in Australia and the U.S. by shaping public policy to overcome disabling attitudes.

A Master of Public Policy will give me stronger quantitative skills and a grounding in microeconomics, learning that will undoubtedly make me a more effective public servant. However, studying the arts and humanities first was a decision I am glad I made. Philosophy has made me a better thinker, communicator and analyst; abilities that we need in a fast-paced and information laden world.

As Arts students, what we learn is valuable, useful and offers a highly-prized opportunity for so many people, all over the world. All three of my majors taught me to think critically, write clearly, explore problems and to innovatively find solutions.

Philosophy’s unwavering commitment to understanding, to questioning, considering and logically analysing, to resisting cynicism in favour of humility, to rejecting dismissive simplifications and instead embracing complexity, to accepting that we may not have an answer now, but there’s much we can discover while looking for one – this philosophical approach is one of the most important things I learned at university, both personally and professionally.  

Even though I did not expect that my arts and humanities background would lead here, it has been indispensable to my work and future endeavours.


Hannah Orban completed a BA (Languages) in 2017 and Honours (Philosophy) in 2018.