Tell us a bit about yourself—where you came from, where you are now, and how you got there.
I was born in South Africa and my parents were always very active in protesting against apartheid so I think I had a social conscience from quite an early age.
After finishing school I was all set to become a teacher when my mum met someone who taught journalism and she suggested to me it might be something I would be interested in. It was the biggest gift because I suddenly knew with absolute clarity that was what I wanted to do. The standard of journalism was quite high in those days and the media was an integral part of the war against injustice. My parents unfortunately both died when I was young—my dad when I was 16 and my mum when I was 20—so I became very independent very quickly and moved from my hometown of Durban to Johannesburg to start my media internship with a group of papers led by The Rand Daily Mail. Our paper was often “banned” and couldn’t be published, but there were some amazingly brave and articulate and dedicated journalists in that time who were fantastic role models. This was at a time when journalists were often arrested and then “disappeared”. I met my husband, Llew, who is also a journalist, at The Cape Times.
In 1985 I travelled to a conference in Amsterdam—it was the first time I had travelled outside of Africa—and realized with horror the way the country was viewed by the rest of the world. I came home and decided, with my husband, that we had to immigrate—and we applied to Australia, which, at that time, was looking for journalists. Nelson Mandela had been jailed in 1962, when I was two, and at this stage, when I was 25, was still in jail. The ANC was still a banned organization, and more and more journalists were being arrested and detained without trial. It did not seem like it would ever change.
By 1986 we were living in Australia. At first, I thought Australia was almost “apolitical”—we couldn’t believe how people could speak out against politicians in the media and on television, for example, and it seemed like it was a country of great mate-ship and equality. It was only after a few months that we realized that in actual fact Australia had a number of difficult issues of its own to face—for example, the way Indigenous people were treated and marginalised. However, we were (and are) very grateful to be here and as soon as we were eligible to become citizens, we did so. For all our human rights issues, such as the inequality between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, and the way we treat refugees, which is inhumane, this is overall a great country and I am so proud to be Australian. We really need to value and protect our freedom of speech and democracy here, because while it is not perfect, it is a lot better than most of the world.
After a couple of years in Australia I studied as a mature age student at UWA doing Arts/Law and discovered Anthropology, which I love. I was working full time, had a young son, Edward, so it was a slog, but also such a fantastic experience. Just as I was finishing my degree I was offered the role as PR Manager at Curtin, I think the first such role they had. I was very fortunate and, with hard work, quickly progressed through the ranks until being appointed Vice President Corporate Relations in February 2009. I have responsibilities for future students, marketing, parts of the web such as the home page, media and events, internal comms, alumni and fundraising, Curtin FM and the Gallery. I also get very involved in critical incidents and I am the Ally program’s “executive champion”, a role I cherish as it is so important to ensure all of our students and staff feel welcome and supported, and a part of the Curtin family. Another important role which I love, is the “executive liaison” between the Uni and the Guild so I get to work closely with the Guild and its executive, and I have met some wonderful people through the years (many of whom I remain friends with).
Wow, what a journey to get here—and you have such a variety of roles at Curtin, I don’t know how you do it! Roles which you have been recognised for—last year you won A Lifetime Achievement Award from Universities Australia for your significant contribution to higher education in Australia. Tell us about what it felt like to learn you would be recognised in such a monumental way?
It was such a fantastic surprise and so unexpected—I did not even know the award existed. I feel so grateful for the award because working at Curtin, and in the higher education sector, genuinely has been a privilege and a pleasure. Of course there are aggravating days when you are arguing about budgets or dealing with difficult issues, but mostly this is an amazing role, with so much diversity and interest. I love working with the students, and my best week of the year is Orientation when the campus comes alive again with young, smart, eager people ready to start their Uni career. Also, in my field, we have heaps of young and incredibly smart staff who are pretty inspirational to me with their sharp minds, their willingness to work hard and their pretty balanced sense of the world. Most have a social conscience and are aware of environmental issues, injustice, etcetera, so that is pretty cool to work with people like that, and I think it keeps me young! So to be recognized by my peers for the work we have done at Curtin was really so thrilling, but of course it is an acknowledgment of the team, not just me. It also just shows that someone like me, from a poor home, and first in family to go to uni, can succeed.
That’s beautiful—it sounds like you and your time are very deserving of this achievement so I’m glad. Especially because you’ve also played in active role in other aspects of university culture. You mentioned that you’re a champion for the Ally program and I saw that you participated in a video about allyship. What motivates you to take part in this sort of activism?
I love a protest if it’s for a good cause! I don’t think there is enough activism today and people tend to get a bit complacent if their own lives are okay. I love my role as the executive Ally champion because I think it is a no brainer that everyone should be treated equally, made welcome, and respected for who they are no matter what their sexuality is or who they identify as. It is always a shock to me when I hear stories about how people are rejected by family or friends or their workplaces because of who they are. So there is a lot of work still to do in this space, and I am happy to be a small part of this.
I also strongly believe in refugee rights. No-one is going to leave their home and seek asylum—often at grave danger to themselves and their children—unless they are forced to by horrific circumstances in their homeland. I feel strongly that Australia should take a more humane approach to refugees and I do not believe in offshore processing. Migrants and refugees have contributed hugely to this country and we should make them welcome.
As I previously mentioned, I also think a lot needs to be done to support Indigenous people and I am very proud of Curtin’s work in this regard, and really pleased we are part of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
My son Edward is profoundly intellectually disabled, and of course I advocate and strongly believe in equal rights and proper protection for people with disabilities; and while I don’t do much in this space, I believe in animal rights too. I have been a vegetarian for over 30 years and try and do a little bit by buying products only from companies who don’t test on animals, are environmentally friendly, etcetera. It’s not much, but if every individual does something, it adds up.
All the staff in Corporate Relations are expected to participate in Ally training, and in Ways of Working, run by our Elder in Residence.
I didn’t know Curtin had mandatory training—that’s really important and I’m glad I know of it now. I saw another video you did as well—between you and former Guild President Jake Wittey. Tell us a bit about your relationship with the Curtin Student Guild over your time at the University.
I love the Guild and think it is absolutely integral to the good functioning of the University. To state the obvious it is the “union” for students, and while I genuinely believe Curtin always intends to do the right thing for and by students, it’s always good to have a different perspective. Management, with the best intentions in the world, can sometimes get caught up in its own agenda, and so the Student Guild plays a vital role in bringing the perspective from students to discussions and decisions. I have respected and liked almost every Guild President and leadership team I have worked with, and remain friends with many past Presidents, and I truly value these relationships. Quite honestly, the people who lead the Guild blow me away with their wisdom and leadership, especially as it is usually at such a young age and with often little previous experience.
Agreed—most of the Presidents come into the role somewhere in the 20s which boggles my mind. What are some of the challenges that you’ve witnessed Curtin University and the Guild face together then?
There have been a couple. Together we have been successful in getting the pedestrian crossing and traffic lights so students can cross the road safely when going to housing; sometimes we don’t agree and the most recent example of that of course was the proposal to look at Trimesters (or the Trimonster as the Guild sold it!).
Parking is an ongoing issue and probably the one that I always say we will have to agree to disagree on……
Oh, you mean the crossing at Erica Underwood—I recall the mad dash across that road when I was in first and second year visiting friends there. Of course the Guild and the University won’t always see eye to eye but I think that’s a good thing. So what achievement are you most proud of?
Personally, keeping my son at home and giving him the best possible life we can give him. He is 30 now, and although his life is constrained by his disability in many ways, he is much loved and is as busy as possible.
At work, definitely the team of people I have worked with over the years. Such great people who join Curtin, often straight from uni, and who go on to brilliant careers either here or somewhere else. My colleagues and the staff in my team are just fantastic and we strive hard to keep a positive culture across our team. But we have had some great moments too—recently the 50th anniversary celebrations were tremendous; I loved when we introduced the Curtinnovation campaign all those years ago; I played a role in helping keep Curtin FM open when the Uni was thinking of closing it; and bringing marketing together under one brand was a huge challenge. Up until then there were many different logos in the market and people just did their own thing. Once we improved our marketing our first preferences continued to grow until we became the most preferred university with a first preference market share of well over 50 percent.
Wow, I didn’t know that we were the first preference. That’s beaut—eat it UWA! How important is the relationship that Curtin University staffers have with the Guild Executives amidst the many changes that have and will continue to take place at the University?
It is really important because working together we can achieve so much. Working separately not much at all. I think we always achieve so much more if there is mutual respect and trust, and after all, both the Guild and the University staff want the best outcomes for our students. A lot of academic staff don’t like to think of students as “customers” but I think of customers in that context as people we should be striving to provide the best possible service or experience to, for the best possible outcomes. After all, students are very sophisticated these days, and can choose from universities and courses all over the world and online, so we have to provide a really positive experience to keep our future and current students interested in us, and this means a good on campus and online experience, and relevant, exciting courses.
As the Guild celebrates 50 years, precisely one year after the University has celebrated their 50 years, what do you see for the future of the institutes?
I hope they both continue to go from strength to strength. Unlike some other unis I think the relationship between the Guild and Curtin is very strong. Curtin will continue to grow its reputation in Australia and develop and grow our global presence. As you know we are shooting up the research and reputation rankings, and remain the most preferred university in WA. I think this will continue and I hope our Guild enjoys the same growth and momentum.