Natalie Barr—a journalist, and one of the most recognisable faces on Australian breakfast television—reminisces about her formative years in Bunbury, travelling from the country to Perth to study journalism at Curtin (formerly WAIT), what the campus environment was like in the mid-80s, her memories of the Student Guild, and how her experiences shaper her career and who she is as a person today.
According to PerthNow, you “ran away” from home in Bunbury at the age of 17 to start university in Perth. What compelled you to do so, and why did you want to study journalism at Curtin?
Well, I was a self-confessed, busy-body as a child and a teenager. I used to listen to all my parents’ conversations at these dinner parties—I'd be more interested in listening to all their conversations, hiding in the hall way. I was just fascinated by everyone's story from a young age. I've always wanted to be a journalist, I guess. I went on work experience at the local TV station in Bunbury when I was 15—and this was after I had a disease that ate away my spine, it's called osteomyelitis. So, I had to stick that out for a whole term of my schooling, but then I got back on track and I volunteered to go to work experience in my school holidays in year 10. As soon as I went there, I thought, Yep, that's what I want to do for the rest of my life!' Then I just had to work out how to get there, and I thought I'll try university. I was the first person in my family to go to university, so I worked hard and got in—and that was just the coolest. Back in those days, there weren't many university representatives in Bunbury, so WAIT was one of the few who came down and talked to us about their courses and it sounded so exciting. It was the bright lights of Perth, and the excitement of WAIT representatives that called out to me!
And what was the degree that you did at WAIT (Curtin)?
Well, it was an English degree, Majoring in Journalism, and it just sounded so exciting. I was good at English, I was terrible at math, and yeah, I loved English, history, economics—they were my favourite subjects. I thought, I think I can do this. I think I might be able [to] actually get in to this course. So, I sort of worked hard and I actually got the marks to get in. I can still remember, walking to that letterbox and I got the letter in the mail and ripped it open and I got into the course and I was just over the moon. That was my future sitting right there. Three little numbers and that I'd got into university and I couldn't have been happier. So, I packed up my things and drove to Perth—with literally just a washing basket full of new purchases that my mum thought I'd need, sitting in the back seat. I got the place at Thomas Moore College opposite UWA, essentially a spot for the country kids. It was literally, I just thought—I was scared to death. I was frightened out of my mind.
I'm leaving the safety of my home, a country town. I walked in there and it was one of the most frightening things I'd ever done, with all those important people and here was me, a country kid thinking, what have I gotten myself into? Absolutely frightening, absolutely frightening.
So, in what period were you studying there?
I graduated high school in '85, so my first year at WAIT was 86. I was so excited and daunted. My problem was that I was not very good at dealing with the fright of the big smoke and the big campus. I was always scared, and I wasn't very good at, I suppose, being there so I sort of started crashing down. I didn't achieve very well, I started failing units, and I just felt that I didn't belong. It didn't work out that well. So, I'm sort of, within that first year I said to my mum and Dad, “I think I'm going to have to drop out. I can't do this, I don't belong here.” I just felt like everyone else was big and important and cool and I was just scared of the whole thing. But mum and dad said, “No, you're not dropping out until you get a job, so if you get a job then you can drop out.” So, I thought, well this going to be a bit hard. So, I wrote to every TV station, radio station in WA and the head of community newspapers. And the Waneroo community newspapers editor was the only one who wrote back and said come in. So, based on the university essay that I had written up until that point, he gave me a job! And that was the beginning of my career. So, I only did 18 months at WAIT in the end.
How, apart from being intimidating, would you describe your short experience at WAIT?
It was a bittersweet experience, and sort of got the better of me. I always felt bad, I sometimes wish I had stayed. But it made me grow up, I felt like I grew up. I felt like it took me from the country into the city and it helped me become an adult. I wished I had stayed, I wish I had taken advantage of everything that Curtin was. I wish I had been able to learn because the lectures were fantastic. I remember sitting in those lecture theatres and the first day they said half of you will drop out. You won't make it.
Yeah, it was a bit negative in those days. And I thought that's going to be me. And I looked around and I thought everyone is cooler and better and smarter than me. So, I'm not the fairy tale unfortunately, but I've spent thirty-odd years as a journalist and you know, you get sent to a story and it's not necessarily the story you think it is. And that's my story.
Do you have any memories of Grok Magazine and the student Guild?
Yes, I can remember the Student Guild, but I can't remember much about the magazine. I can just remember walking into the Guild, and I just thought everyone was sort of more senior and busier, and as I said, cooler than me. I just I didn't know how to become a part of it. I didn't know how to be accepted. I didn't know how to join in. I felt quite sad about that to be honest because lots of people have such fond memory university days and I didn't really. I don't in any way blame the university, I blame myself. It's just one of those things that didn't work out. I'm sure in nowadays they have much better system to try to include, you know, little lost country kids.
How would you say your studies at Curtin, though quite brief, had contributed to your career and who you are as a person today?
It definitely helped shape me. It helped make me who I am, and it toughened me. I think I definitely needed it, I needed to be thrown from my little happy country upbringing into the real world. And it was scary for me and I needed that to become a journalist. I had a fantastic country upbringing, but you can't become a journalist if you're in your happy little safety zone. Going to Curtin threw me into a world of different people, a whole new world essentially. And even though it wasn't for me, it made me think, now what do I need to do? That's what happens in life, you find yourself in a situation you don't expect to encounter, and you have to think, now what do we do? And that shapes you—it's a good thing. It sometimes takes, you know, a year or two or five or 10 for you to look back and think, that was actually a good thing, a very good thing—a great reality check.