Swimming with the tide

first published in Flycatcher Magazine Issue № 4 2017

It was a warm Sunday morning when I sat in front of the computer. Pot of coffee to my right. The Australian Magazine with a full back page advertisement about Charles Darwin University on my left. I had noticed these adverts over the past couple of months, intrigued but not really sure I would do anything about them.

That December day in 2010 was different. I logged onto the CDU website to get an idea of just what was needed to enrol. A big move for someone who had left school in 1968 after four years of high school education.

Three hours and another pot of coffee later I put the finishing touches to my Personal Competencies Statement. I was taking the plunge, submitting an undergraduate application. Why was I doing this? As I sweated over the details of my career and past achievements I asked myself this question over and over.

I was a business woman who established a successful IT business in the fashion industry over 20 years ago. Why was I thinking about ‘going back to school’? Again, I pondered this when I received notification from CDU that I had been accepted into a Bachelor of Commerce degree.

University was different from high school back in the 60s. This time online study meant I did not hang out in the quadrangle with the other kids. I listened to lectures on my phone each morning on my daily walks; while driving to work each day and instead of watching TV each night.

I tried to imagine what my teachers looked like from the sound of their voices. I wondered how the three students in my group in the Business Environment unit felt about communicating with me via email instead of over a coffee. I was the only first year student sitting the Introduction to Legal Studies exam in Melbourne.

At the completion of four units in my first year I had the answer to that initial question. I was doing this because I loved it! I found my vocation. I wasn’t studying because I needed a degree to launch my career. I was studying, as Ruth Ostrow puts it “to fulfil our potential and express all the wisdom bursting out of us; to follow a dream that makes our heart sing, even while making a living or raising kids”.

In hindsight, I realised that I craved and relished the challenge of self-improvement and change. I wanted to show myself that I could do this. Later I understood, oh so clearly, what Ernest Hemingway meant when he said “there is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man: true nobility is being superior to your former self”. Of course, he wasn’t talking about competitive fellow students who constantly raised the bar.

I was addicted and wanted more. Not more of the same just more. I left CDU at the end of first year when Swinburne University in Melbourne offered me a position in their MBA course. I leapt again into the deep end. No dipping my toes in the water this was a sink or swim decision.

After three long years of part time study at Swinburne, I sat in my last class for my MBA. It was a bittersweet moment. I reflected on fellow classmates who worked with me — it was always fun, interesting, challenging and most importantly rewarding. I wondered what would I have done without my lecturers who encouraged, facilitated, pushed, listened to what I had to say and read numerous pages of assignments, while I constantly questioned my sanity and my confidence.

I have to say it was the most exciting three years of my life. But it didn’t end there. September this year I will complete the final unit of a Master of Journalism at Monash University.

What started out as a response to an advert in The Australian nearly seven years ago changed my life. As Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly say “from little things big things grow”. My light bulb moment was when I realized I had a wealth of knowledge and experience that I could take to the Board Room. This gave me the confidence to apply for and achieve Non-Executive Directorships on two Boards. This was definitely not on my radar when I walked into my first MBA class.

I am now embarking on a new career, one that leaves the fashion industry to its off-shore future. It is time now for a livelihood in journalism that builds on the writing and research skills I developed and embraced wholeheartedly at three universities across three different degrees.

However, I can honestly say that where I am today, I owe to my first year of tertiary education at CDU. My gratitude goes out to the teachers and students who launched me into the ocean of education; for giving me a taste of what was out there above the waves; for providing me the paddling skills with which to navigate and for teaching me how to keep my head above the water.

Carol Saffer lives in Melbourne, travels frequently, loves a deadline and suffers a life-long obsession to write for The Economist.