Saturday, 16 February 2013, 6.00pm
Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, Council Members, Dean, Associate Dean, fellow Academics, guests of Edith Cowan University, families, friends, and most importantly: our graduates.
It is an honour and a real thrill to be sharing this happy occasion with you. To graduate from University rates amongst life's big moments, and if the immensity of the achievement hasn’t fully sunk in, in time I trust it will. You've done the hard work and while it might seem that you’ve reached the end point of a very long journey, far more importantly, you've arrived at a brand new beginning. New beginnings in life are full of uncertainty and can be a little scary; but they are also brimming with possibility.
I am a writer of fiction and creative nonfiction, and my most recent beginning was as a Post Doctoral Research Fellow here at Edith Cowan University South West. My scheduled start date was October 2011, 10 days after Steve Jobs - the Cofounder and CEO of Apple Incorporated - passed away in the United States from pancreatic cancer.
The task of relocating to Bunbury to begin at ECU involved several road trips to and from where we'd been living in Perth, and it was during the last of those rather boring drives-the Subaru crammed with pot plants, computers, the vacuum cleaner-that I tuned in to Radio National to hear the Commencement Speech that Steve Jobs gave in 2005 to graduates of Stanford University. He shared three potent stories from his life, all of them about beginnings, all of which have stayed with me. One of those stories, that he titled ‘Connecting the Dots’ is a theme I would like to expand on today.
Steve Jobs never graduated from any University. After 6 months as a disenchanted undergraduate he dropped out, and it was only then that he decided to sit in on classes whose subjects fascinated him. He told about the calligraphy course he audited, purely out of interest, believing it had no hope of any practical application in his life. But ten years later, when Steve Jobs was designing the first Apple Macintosh computer, the things he had learned in that class about typefaces and typography came back to him and he designed it all into the Mac -- the first computer with beautiful, then state‐of‐the‐art typography.
In my own life, after matriculating in Tasmania, I had no interest in going on with tertiary study. I hadn't lived enough of life to even imagine what I might do. I enrolled in the local Advanced College of Education because my two older sisters were teachers and that seemed like the thing to do. My career as an education student lasted four dreary weeks. I found my way across the country to a new beginning in Western Australia and began working as a graphic design trainee at what was then WAIT, now Curtin University.
It wasn't until I was well into my thirties-self‐employed as a graphic designer, a time when I had developed an inexplicable voice disorder that was eventually diagnosed and treated as Spasmodic Dysphonia-that I developed a fascination for voice and speech. I wanted to learn more. My initial enquiry with Curtin University to ask about their undergraduate speech pathology course was dispiriting. I was told I'd been away from education too long to even qualify for entry; I was even told that in all likelihood any University level course would be beyond my reach. Deflated, though not defeated, I took a step back and enrolled at Tuart College in Perth where I completed a year of Academic Preparation Studies - an alternate pathway to University. As it turned out I was awarded the college prize for English and was asked by my teacher to reconsider a tertiary degree in English and writing studies. I liked English, I loved writing and reading, I liked thinking about literature and film, but what possible good would an Arts Degree do me? I'd been self-employed for several years, working long hours for a modest salary. I wanted a career with solid income prospects. I wanted a clear‐cut path. I was ready for the security and predictability that the outcome of such a course would deliver.
I was offered a placement in Speech Pathology at Curtin Uni and at least on paper, my first year as a mature age student appeared a sound success. I worked hard and made high grades. But there was a fundamental problem: I wasn't loving what I was learning: I was simply going through the motions. I found myself at the crossroads, struck with the horrible thought that I might well have wasted an entire year, and the year before that, doing something I wasn't suited for. The idea of giving up - admitting defeat - didn't sit easily after all that time and effort. And if I did give up, what then would I do with my life?
That Christmas, caught in a maelstrom of confusion, I laid caution aside and followed my lifelong dream to travel to Antarctica. I used all the savings I'd squirrelled away to pay my taxes and signed up for a voyage on a small Russian ice‐strengthened ship to the Antarctic Peninsula.
Antarctica had been my passion since girlhood. The Australian polar explorer Douglas Mawson was my life‐long hero. If I could have come back in life as anyone I wished, it would be-not Mawson-but the tour‐de‐force Australian photographer Frank Hurley who accompanied Mawson on his 1911‐14 Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Hurley's long life of travel and high‐octane adventure to remote places, his creative passion and strive for excellence, seemed to me an extraordinary life brimming with purpose and meaning.
That voyage I took to Antarctica was life changing. That single decision continues to be life shaping. I met my now‐partner of many years Gary Miller, a penguin and seabird biologist who at this moment is on his way to Antarctica's Ross Sea. A year after that first voyage I gave an unequivocal YES to Aurora Expeditions' invitation to come along as an unpaid volunteer on a month-long voyage to Antarctica - a position that had led to my now-16th year of voyaging to the polar regions as an Assistant Expedition Leader, and working as a field assistant on Antarctic science projects. It was during that first voyage to the Antarctic Peninsula, sitting at the edge of a colony of 100,000 chinstrap penguins, that I had a moment of utter clarity. My year at Tuart College hadn't been wasted. It had shown me something I didn't know I was good at, something I really enjoyed. My year of Speech Pathology hadn't been wasted, I'd learned some neat stuff and I'd discovered something important about myself: it wasn't the scientific diagnosis of disorder that enthralled me: it was the experience of living with such a thing, the feelings, the changes thrust upon all of us in life, the undermining of identity, the stories of what it is to be in the world with disorder—voice or otherwise. Amongst a cacophony of squawking penguins and the acrid smell of the colony, I gained a glimpse of a possible new beginning: a pathway of learning: exploring and creating stories that express something fundamental to us all: what it is to be human.
I returned home from Antarctica, cast away visions of wealth and job security, and switched to an Arts degree, majoring in Creative Writing. That led to an inspiring year of exchange study in the United States, which led to undertaking a Master of Arts in the USA. I then returned to Australia to take up the marvellous opportunity as a PhD student at our university, under the guidance of a rock-solid mentor. The result of those many years of academic learning and practice, combined with life experience, was my first published novel which is set, where else, but Antarctica. Which, in turn, has led me here...
Back to Steve Jobs and his Stanford Commencement Speech. Jobs finished his story of 'Connecting the Dots' - the knowledge he drew upon from those university classes he attended as a dropout - with this: 'You can't connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.'
Perhaps it's pie-in-the-sky to imagine we can all follow a dream without consideration for the practicalities of life: money, security, stability—perhaps being called upon to support someone else’s dream. But Steve Jobs died at 56, and looking backwards at family and friend losses through my own years, I know that life is short. It's fragile. It’s precious. Each of you graduating here today leaves this hall with a quiver of skills and knowledge that will arm you through your future; you may find yourselves drawing on that knowledge in the most unexpected ways. Whatever path calls you, whatever opportunity opens before you that sets your skin alive—consider those voices that tell you, it's not possible, consider the possibility of failure, and if the feelings still urge you, do it anyway. There's a saying: 'Life is not measured by the breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away.' I advocate seeking out the thing you love, even when it comes without a money-back guarantee, even when it comes without money at all. I might add a cautionary note: it's definitely not a smart idea to misspend your tax money.
I commend each of you on arriving at this momentous new beginning and I want to close by sharing these words from the late Steve Jobs: 'You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle ... Don't settle.'
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