People come to university to prepare for their careers, but they also learn about themselves. Four prominent alumni talk about the ideas, the people and the experiences that shaped their university careers and who they are now.
The Hon. Michael Kirby AC CMG, is an international jurist, educator and former judge, and a widely recognised and admired Australian. He kept busy during his University years by earning a Bachelor of Arts (1959), Bachelor of Laws (1962), Bachelor of Economics (1965) and Master of Laws (1967). The University was where he could more fully be the person he wanted to be.
At school I had learned of the contributions of a Sydney alumnus, Dr H V Evatt (BA ’15 MA ’17 LLB ’18 LLD ’24 DLitt ’44 DSc ’52 DSc (Honoris Causa) ’52) who was both on the High Court of Australia and one of the founders of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It seemed unattainable, but I dreamt of following in his footsteps and contributing to a better, kinder and safer world.
I did very well in the school leaving certificate 1955, so going to university was a no-brainer. At the time, there was only one university in Sydney. So there I enrolled. I knew I wanted to be a lawyer.
I learned to stretch my mind, even in the law which, at the time, was pretty formalistic. Professor Julius Stone challenged the orthodox view that law was values free. I also learned to become a ‘joiner’.
I joined the SU Law Society and became its first student president. I then became President of the Students’ Representative Council (twice) and of the SU Union. I was also elected Student Senator.
The biggest challenge to me was the pressure imposed at the time to be silent and to deny my sexuality. I had a lonely personal life. I hid my loneliness in chairing thousands of student committees. I became the king of committees. But there was a big hole in my life. At the end of my student years I proudly brought my newfound partner, Johan, to the SRC where I was reporting on SU Senate business. “This is a bit childish at age 28,” he says, with typical Netherlands directness. Suddenly I had to wake up and become an adult.
Learning from my life, I would tell my younger self to drink deep on the love of parents and siblings. And never to give up in the search for love. Finding my partner Johan in 1969 was a kind of miracle. Sustaining our relationship for 47 years is the most important thing I have done.
Dr Anne Summers AO is a best‐selling author, journalist and leading thinker with a long career in politics, the media, business and the non‐government sector in Australia and internationally. She has been particularly instrumental in developing policies that improve opportunities for women. Doing her PhD at the University introduced her to a community of people and a way of thinking that changed the purpose and direction of her life.
I left school the second I turned 16, and I started doing the work girls were supposed to do back then: first a bank, then a shoe shop, and office work. Next I worked in an antiquarian bookshop. That was a turning point for me because I spent all day reading and in many ways, that was the beginning of my education.
Later, I had a job at the library at the University of Adelaide. I used to look out the window and see the students, and that’s when I decided that I wanted to become one of them. I got my first degree in Adelaide then moved to Sydney.
Some friends in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney persuaded me it would be a good place for me to do my PhD. I studied under Professor Henry Mayer (MA ’84), and he became one of the most important people in my life.
We didn’t use the word ‘mentor’ back then, but he encouraged me to see what was happening in the women’s movement as something worthy of serious study. He’d read the drafts of the book I was writing and we’d argue about those issues. The great gift he gave me was the gift of rigour. It was such a formative part of my intellectual development and I will forever associate the University with that.
The book turned out to be the groundbreaking, Damned Whores and God’s Police. As I wrote it, I was also trying to balance my academic life with my activist life. I was very active in the women’s movement, which was young and new at that time.
If I had a dream, it was to be a writer, which I’ve actually managed to do throughout my life. I believe that we should know more about ourselves and our society. That’s one reason I write.
If I met that younger self somehow, I’d say to her: Like yourself more, aim high, and never give up.
Jack Manning Bancroft entered the University on a leadership scholarship. As he studied media and communications, he had a growing determination to do something that would make a real difference. His ambition grew into the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME), which has now helped hundreds of disadvantaged kids finish school and go on to university. While studying, Jack was energised and inspired by the huge variety of people in the University community.
There is always a moment that changes everything. Mine was sitting at a scholarship interview to head to Sydney Uni and being asked why I should get the scholarship. I responded by saying “if you give it to me I’m going to want to put something back and if I do anything in my life I’m gonna do something big”. I got the gig. Now I had to think of something big to do.
The early theory was: I’d play cricket for Australia then do some sports journalism. The cricket dream fell by the wayside and in its place came something that’s probably better for everyone. That idea was AIME – an educational mentoring program that has since changed the lives of thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids and given a generation of uni students across the nation the chance to lead us all to a better tomorrow.
My time at Sydney was the perfect melting pot to chase greatness. It was because I was exposed to so many different people. From the super privileged to the poorest families and everyone in between. At Manning Bar I sat with future athletes, doctors, scientists, revolutionaries, fi lm makers, musicians – when I spoke to them I felt I was looking at a mirror asking who I was going to be.
As the years went by, I learned some of my most important lessons, which incidentally were not in the classroom. I learned who I was. I learned how to take people for who they are and where they could go, as opposed to judging them on where they had come from. In the romantic main Quadrangle I learned to stand up for justice and I learned I could be a leader of men and women.
Samah Hadid consistently appears in lists of emerging leaders and change‐makers. As an international human rights and social justice advocate, she is a respected adviser to governments and leading international organisations. She has had key roles with Oxfam, the Global Poverty Project and the United Nations, and she’s about to become Deputy Director for the Middle East with Amnesty International. The passion of her University peers gave her a new world view.
At the time I came to Sydney, I was veiled and publicly Muslim. Living in the post-September 11 context meant that I had experienced both verbal harassment and discrimination, and it opened my eyes to the need to really strengthen human rights for the most vulnerable in our society.
Coming from Western Sydney, I wasn’t always exposed to a diversity of Australians from all around the country. Being at the University broadened my understanding of different cultures in Australia and the different experiences of young people.
The best memory for me was the rigorous nature of the debate, the discussions, the critical analysis that came with studying political economy and political science. It was really refreshing and challenging for me on an academic level. There was also the social and political organising that comes with being a University of Sydney student.
What is really motivating is the support you get from your peers, the energy that comes from it, and also the spirit of the student body.
Graduating felt like a huge accomplishment. I was the first child in my family to graduate, so it was sweeter for me. It was a proud moment for my parents as well. Graduating from Sydney made it even better, because it’s such a prestigious institution.
Sydney is where I learned that it’s really important to have an open mind. Having those rigorous discussions in class allowed me to do that. They taught me that we need to ground our opinions in evidence and analysis, and have a deep understanding about a lot of the contentious issues our society faces.
If I could talk to my younger self now, I’d tell her not be afraid to stand out, and to take the unconventional pathway, even though it’s not laid out clearly before you. It’s OK to take risks and it’s OK to fail as well. You will learn a lot along the way.