Women's College Valedictory Dinner

 

The Women's College Valedictory Dinner Address

21 October 2008

 

Dr Maureen Aitken, Principal,

Professor Mark Gould, President of the Academic Board,

Ms Sallyanne Atkinson, Fellow of College,

Mr Douglas Porter, Secretary and Registrar of the University of Queensland,

Mr Robert Wensley QC,

Ms Ellen Juhasz, acting President of the Student Council,

Fellows of College,

Valedictorians,

Family and friends of the Valedictorians,

Other distinguished guests, notably from the College and

University communities,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Collegians and Students, 

There are so many people to acknowledge this evening - a testimony to the importance of this occasion and its significance for so many people here this evening.

I begin in the spirit of reconciliation and harmony that we wish to see take full hold in our State and throughout Australia, by acknowledging  the indigenous owners of the land on which we are gathered: the Turrbal and Jagera peoples, past and present.

Tonight is for me a wonderful meeting of past and present, and I thank you warmly for the invitation to join you for this Valedictory Dinner.  For many years now , as I have lived and  represented Australia in various countries and successive diplomatic appointments overseas, I have had to send my ‘regrets' to the regular flow of invitations to events at College - and each time it was with genuine, not simply formulaic, regret that I did so.  For each time the familiar letterhead arrived, with its distinctive crest and motto, I was transported momentarily to a different world - the college world that I inhabited for only four years out of my now more than six decade life span, but which left an indelible imprint on me and a legacy of  experiences and memories that I cherish: as I hope will also be the case for our valedicts, as they graduate, leave college and start the next, exciting phase of their life's journey.

I don't know each of your histories: whether you came from city or country; interstate or overseas; what courses you have studied; how many years you have spent here; how you came to be at Women's - whether it was your choice or that of your parents -perhaps some of you are the daughters of former collegians?

That certainly played a role in my own case: my parents were both UQ graduates; both had lived at residential colleges - at Kings College and Women's respectively - and believed it important that their children have that experience, and the many extra benefits that college life offered. They sacrificed a great deal to make that possible - financially, to pay the fees (carrying a heavy double load for four years, as my elder brother Robert, although a year ahead of me, was at Kings college throughout my time at Women's) - and emotionally - as my father's work required them to live in another State and we could not, as a family, be together very often during the year.  This was especially hard on my mother - but there was a cost to all of us.  I recall I had to spend numerous holiday periods in college - which was a strange feeling, particularly when all those people attending conferences and meetings came and took over the place.  I always thought of them as intruders, trespassing on "our" territory - and was always very glad when my fellow collegians -  the ‘real students' returned.

Of course, I know now - and did learn from my time on College Council - that the rent those "intruders" paid helped to keep the college in the black and helped deliver better facilities for us, but at the time, those practical considerations didn't do much to assuage my resentment of the strangers making use of the common room or finding obvious amusement in reading the notices and messages and seeing the personal paraphernalia of the collegians that remained evident in various places around college - despite the stern injunctions to ‘pack up our rooms'.

Looking back, my negative reaction to those outsiders who seemed rather casual about their temporary residence, related very much to the feeling that the women's college was not only ‘our' place, but that it was a very special place, and that everyone should recognise that and behave accordingly!

I have asked myself, on occasion, what made it so special?  For some of my fellow collegians - it was less so, I know - notably for some of those from remote and rural regions of Queensland who had already spent years at boarding schools and for whom the experience of residential accommodation and living and sharing with others was less novel.

For most of us, though, this was new and exciting - another layer grafted onto the already exciting experience of starting University and being ‘Freshers'. I t was wonderful to swap clothes and stories, to  tell jokes and  having singing sessions together in the corridor, to gossip around the supper milk, (in those days, they delivered every evening to each kitchen in each wing, a jug of milk and a tin of biscuits - and occasionally, during swotvac - cake!)  to help each other with lecture notes and assignments, through romantic disappointments and highlights, to have new friends to share the experience of leaving school behind, of being  in the unfamiliar world of tertiary education and meeting its many challenges.

What else made it special?  Our surroundings for one: college itself was - is - an attractive place: the rooms comfortable and well-designed for study, with lovely outlooks over trees and gardens.  Everything was always beautifully maintained, inside and out and a major effort was made, in places like the common room, to create graceful and gracious spaces, always with fresh flowers, art works - things that were pleasing to see and soothing - without our even realising it - to students worried about assignments and exams.

This attention to our immediate environment - and some of the requirements for meals and behaviour, including those for formal dinners - was also a quiet, relatively unobtrusive way of setting standards - of  teaching and encouraging young women, some of whom were not at all familiar with such norms - about how to act and behave in social situations.  We didn't exactly have to walk up and down with books on our heads, or practise curtseying (although we WERE subjected to some compulsory and embarrassing  lectures about sex and its dreadful perils, from the formidable Doctor, Lady Cilento, whose warnings about cars and condoms still echo in my ears!).

Nor did we have to dress elaborately: our dress standards for most of the time were pretty basic - shorts, simple dresses and sandals were the norm - with academic gowns adding a remarkably versatile option - well beyond what I am sure its designers intended! - But I have no doubt that the physical setting and the surroundings of college, in the full sense of the word, did play a part in making us feel special.

As did actually living on campus and being part of the larger college community.  It was so easy and such a privilege - when you saw the travel hassles of fellow students who lived elsewhere - to be able to walk from our home to lectures, to the library, to the refectory - and to ‘the village' - which I understand is now known as ‘the ville' - in the latter case, not necessarily for any commercial purpose; in fact for no other reason than that the route took us past the men's colleges!

And the social life and opportunities offered by being at college were wonderful: of course, we worked and studied hard - especially as end of year exams approached - but the inter-college activities, competitions and the friendly rivalry that pervaded the college community certainly meant we played hard, too: debating, rowing, the Kings-Women's play, the Johns-Women's Gilbert and Sullivan, the ICC, the annual Collympics, and the annual slide-around in the mud - in a specially watered grassy space, thoroughly hosed to make it totally muddy and completely irresistible to those always ready to revert to their childhood or ready to ‘throw the girls in', fresher concerts (oh, how embarrassing are my memories of those!), exchange dinners, touch football on the oval...offered endless opportunities to have fun, find new interests and, in the early years at least, to check out new talent, in every respect.  The college ‘at homes' and balls - beyond the fresher welcomes, faculty balls, and ‘smokoes' at the university itself - added yet another layer of rich possibilities

And apart from all these formal activities, there were the informal ones:- the raids and the challenges - sometimes linked to initiation ceremonies, but often just because the Women's College was a great target.  Maybe today's valedicts were a more serious lot - and our times more innocent - but when we were at college, people in other colleges seemed to derive inordinate amusement from pinching certain garments from the Women's College washing lines; from noisy serenades; from souveniring the college mascot - which in my time was a statue, Eeyore - which I see is still gracing the front of college, having been defended and rescued many times over - most recently by Leo's I believe - and which in my daughter's day was a doll, Mary Woozer;  and on one memorable occasion somehow hoisting overnight a toilet pedestal onto the roof of college, just one of a seemingly endless string of  jokes associated with the college WC acronym.

Considerable delight was also taken in getting around the rules and systems that were there for our protection, but which we found rather restrictive.  When I was in residence, the college ran a ‘feeder bus' system to transport women's college ‘gels' after dark.  The ‘feeder bus man', however, was very zealous in his determination to protect girls walking in dark places, especially if they were accompanied by a young man and in fact, not much interested in walking or talking to one another, but actually seeking out those dark places!  I remember the feeder bus man on one occasion actually driving off the ring road and with his large, lumbering vehicle, pursuing me and my male companion across an oval, shining the head lights on us, and forcing us ignominiously to head back to the road and into the bright lights we had been so keen to avoid.

It may be hard for some of the students and valedicts here this evening to imagine, because I understand that things are very much more relaxed now, with students able to come and go pretty freely, but when I and some other ‘old collegians' (a term I used to like using, but now less so, for obvious reasons!) there were very stringent rules about who and which gender we could entertain and for how long; when we could leave college premises and when we were required to return.  One of the toughest rules to get around was the one that said -in writing - if you were entertaining a man in your room, in addition to having to leave the door unlocked, three feet had to be on the floor at all times. You try that for yourself - not impossible, but not easy!

College was locked, very strictly, in the evening - and whoever was on lock-up roster used to be very unpopular jangling the keys loudly and hurrying up the dawdling couples who were conducting an experiment in how to swipe mosquitoes and kiss at the same time, and clinging to the few shadows on the driveway, trying to stretch extra minutes from the unsympathetic door-keeper.

We had a system of late keys, strictly rationed - two per week as I recall: the College Calendar in my fresher year, in 1964, stated:

"Students who desire to be absent from the College between 6:00pm and 11:55pm must write their names and the place where they are to be in a book provided for that purpose. If they wish to be away from the College after 11:55pm, they must obtain special permission from the Principal. Special permission must also be obtained to visit any other College at any time."

The system worked pretty well, although much ingenuity was applied to getting around the rules, without actually breaking them. I recall one time a group of us, going to a ball, worked out that if we stayed out the WHOLE night, we should be able to walk in, once it was daylight and the doors unlocked, with impunity.  We did stay out all night - but it was actually a bit of a trial, as none of the group had a car, we were all collegians - the men and the women - and all the other colleges were as well locked up as Women's.  We went to what was then Lennons Hotel for a very early breakfast, but could only afford one between us - so once shared, it was quite skimpy!

When we did return, I recall also that we weren't quite game enough to march in the front door, however.  We came round the back, through the laundry - and keen to show off, were a bit crest-fallen to find only a couple of early risers doing their washing and not the least bit interested in acknowledging us as the bold and reckless women of the world we thought we were.  We felt a bit silly and were glad to get changed and to tackle a substantial college breakfast!

I suspect our Principal at the time - Molly Budtz-Olsen - knew very well what had happened, but chose to turn a Nelsonian blind eye to this modest escapade.  If she did know, she certainly didn't  say or tell: I recently remarked to our elder daughter, Sarah, who was the third generation of our family to attend the Women's College, that I didn't think there were any incriminating stories attached - or attachable - to me. Sarah replied -"Oh, you're famous, Mum! Apparently you were known as the person who lobbied for "more milk and more men!"  I'm not sure how accurate that record is, but I'm told it's immortalised in a cartoon of me in the Women's College magazine Eeyore - and perhaps this helps to explain how I ended up happily married to an Emmanuel man, a veterinary surgeon, who came from a dairy farm!

Enough of my college stories - this evening belongs to many people and most especially to our valedicts - but I thought sharing a few of my memories of college, might prompt you, the departing collegians, now preparing to leave college - to think about what memories and stories you have gathered during your years here, that you will be taking away and may some day recount to an audience like this; and also to reflect on the things you have valued about your life at college and the people here, who have influenced or become important to you.  You have no doubt formed firm friendships with some of your fellow collegians and I am confident that you will keep those friendships throughout your lives-the Women's College network, as I have found, is a deep and abiding one.

Perhaps, also, you will carry with you a special affection for your Principal, Dr Maureen Aitken, who is herself a valedict of sorts this evening, with her retirement at the end of this year fast approaching.  Dr Aitken is one of a long line of eminent Principals of the college dating back to 1914, to the founding Principal, Freda Bage: outstanding academics and teachers; women who have devoted much of their lives and careers to the care and nurture - spiritually, intellectually and professionally - of young women.

It is a challenging - and under-estimated - role, involving enormous responsibility, requiring great sensitivity and dexterity, blending administrative authority with moral guidance, efficiency with empathy, firmness with flexibility-being progressive, while  maintaining the standards and the traditions that are so essential for College to maintain its very particular and proud identity and reputation within the university and college community.

I take this opportunity to acknowledge  the extraordinary contribution Dr Aitken has made to college and to the happiness and success of the many women who have been in her care during the eighteen years she has been Principal - my own daughter included.  Maureen, thank you.

Like her predecessors, Dr Aitken, I know, has a passionate belief in the value and power of women's education.  Although some of those earlier Principals had to deal with prejudice or scepticism about educating women; happily, we can now - at least in Australia, if not in some other countries where I have worked - (Mexico, India, Algeria, Mauritania - to name a few of them) take for granted the equal right of women to attend university and to pursue a career.  But it really wasn't SO long ago, that women at university were very much a minority, and the idea still prevailed in some quarters and families that educating women was a waste of time since they would probably marry and have children, after which it was almost inevitable that they would never work again.

In the 1960's, and in my early career in the diplomatic corps in the 1970's, I experienced personally this kind of prejudice.  I didn't receive the same pay as my eighteen fellow cadets who were all men - and that discrimination lasted several years.  I was, fortunately, one of the first generation of women in the public service who weren't required to resign upon marriage; but I nevertheless felt the brunt of low expectations and barriers to advancement that took a lot of determination and effort eventually to shift.

Having had those early experiences, I am acutely conscious - and deeply grateful - to the women who pioneered the freedoms we now enjoy. Who believed in and fought for women's education and equality of opportunity.  For those who share this interest and awareness, I commend to you a wonderful exhibition currently at the State Library, which I had the privilege of opening last week: marking their 100 year anniversary, it is called ‘Reforming Women: Social Activism and the Brisbane Women's Club'.  It's not large - but it is an absolute jewel of an exhibition, which will fill you with admiration for brave, resolute women like Margaret Ogg, who fought for - and eventually won the vote for women in Queensland.

Our eleven graduands and twenty-nine valedicts may not have had to fight, like Margaret, for their rights, or for their place at university or here at college - but it is my hope that armed with your education and the experience of being Women's Collegians, that you will leave college with the confidence and determination she had to take your full and rightful place in the world - and that you will, as countless collegians before you, stand out as young women of ability, of charm, of poise and personality, enriched by  the experiences that college has offered you.

Many people have worked over many years to build the College legacy, which as graduates and valedicts, it is now your inheritance to receive and to take with you into the world.  I know that tonight's group of departing collegians represents a wide range of interests, skills and disciplines, across the arts and sciences.  I am aware that some of you have long ago determined your career path and that you are set to pursue this with steady purpose.  For others, the direction may be less clear, with the next few years offering a range of possibilities, including more study: not all of those departing are actually about to graduate; and some will be contemplating post-graduate study.

Whatever your purpose, plans or possibilities, I wish you every success in what you do and express the hope that the Women's College legacy will be one you will carry with warmth and with pride wherever you go - and, as our college motto - CAPIMUS UT DIVIDAMUS - ‘We take that we might share' - exhorts us to do, you will see your college experience as something always to be savoured and shared, through the experiences and the life that still so wonderfully awaits you.