I remember when I was at high school, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to past graduates returning to share their stories of how they had shaped their lives after leaving school. I remember feeling excited at the possibility of all that awaited me.
Some 15 years later, I was invited to return to my high school, St Joseph’s Catholic College at East Gosford on the Central Coast, to do the same – to tell my story of life after school to the current year 12 graduates in the company of the rest of their school peers and their families, and what an honour it was.
Here is what I had to say:
My name is Leah and it’s such a pleasure to be standing here with you all today as you celebrate 6 years of friendship, learning, growing and changing – and what a privilege to do that together.
I too sat where you sit some 15 years ago now, delighted to be almost at the end of my school years, but equally nervous about the big unknown. It’s a funny place to be – this limbo land, and it’s rife with emotion.
I believe that stories strengthen our connection to each other. They bridge the worlds between you and I, and between ‘us’ and ‘them’. They remind us of our innate humanness and allow us to see that we are all entitled to the same rights and joys.
So, with that said, I’m going to share with you a story in the hope it adds meaning to your personal journey as you make the transition from school to the world.
A lady by the name of Maya Angelou, an American poet and civil rights activist said:
Now I must admit, I didn’t quite grasp what Maya was saying all those years ago when I was at school. You see, I worked hard on my assessments and studied for my exams. I understood quite early that if I wanted to do well at school, the choice started and ended with me. So for people to forget what I had said and to forget what I had did, seemed a little unfair. In my mind, I had worked hard to be remembered for my efforts…
And so, I got the UAI I needed (what you call an ATAR today) to get into a double degree in Communications and International Studies. I didn’t know at the time where this degree would take me. What I did know though was it would open doors – hopefully international ones. Thanks to my adventurous parents, I have been fortunate to travel this world since before I could crawl and when I was your age, 17 going on 18, I was itching to explore more. So I got into this competitive 5-year degree and specialised in social enquiry (ie. the study of people) with journalism electives and Indonesian language skills. These years at university were extremely fun. New friends, new places, a new home. The proverbial comfort zone had definitely been stretched.
Then at age 21, for the final year of my degree, I elected to go on exchange. Not to France, Italy, Canada or the States, but the central Java in Indonesia to the city of Yogayakarta, or Yogya as its known among the locals. Yogya is the cultural and intellectual hub of Indonesia. Here I lived with a handful of other Australians in a girls’ boarding house, otherwise known as a kos, for 12 months studying, travelling, and living. Life was markedly different to my life by Avoca Beach at home. I was now in the Islamic state of Indonesia. The way I dressed, the way I spoke, and the way I interacted was all considered through a different cultural lens, one I respected and adjusted to with time.
Fresh out of university, a whole new world of professional work presented itself to me. Again, I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do next. My degree hadn’t really pointed me down one clear career path like other degrees do. I knew I enjoyed learning about people and the creative license words gave me to communicate a message and so took up an internship with our local newspaper here on the Coast, the Express Advocate. Two week later, I was offered a cadetship. With pen and paper in hand, I would spend my days chasing stories, interviewing policemen, school principals, conservationists, local businesses, hospital staff. I started to realise which stories excited me and which ones, not so much. It was always a thrill to get featured on the front page, but it was the stories about community events, rallies and groups standing up for a cause that really made me feel purposeful. After two years with the paper, I started to feel like I was on the outside reporting on incredible people and initiatives on the inside. I went back to university to study a Masters in International Social Development and more than ever, I felt like I home. This came to a pinnacle when I joined the university in New Delhi, India, as part of a project supporting Burmese Chin refugees who had been resettled in the capital. The Chin people are an ethnic minority group who fled their home, Myanmar, because of persecution by the military dictatorship since 1960. We held workshops educating and empowering these men, women and children about their entitled human rights so they could vocalise their needs and wants to the United Nations.
Following my Masters, I entered the competitive space of job interviews. After a few months of knock backs, I landed my dream job with Oxfam Australia. I was the Program Officer for an international youth leadership program that supported young leaders from all around the world to create positive change. This role saw me go to the United National Sustainable Development Conference in Rio de Janerio in Brazil and to the World Social Forum in Tunis in Tunisia. It was my job to support these incredible young change-makers to communicate their messages clearly to government representatives and in community forums. It was really my dream job in so many ways, but it also came at a cost. Charities, even the big ones, rely on funding and donations from a generous public to do the work they do, and we were often under-staffed and under-resourced, which meant long hours from our small team. When you’re deeply passionate about something, you can be blind to impact it has on your life. After three years, I was burnt out and tired of the internal politics and bureaucracy. It was a really difficult decision to make, but my partner Jason and I, decided now was the perfect time to live and work abroad. We left our jobs and our life in Australia, and with just our backpacks, moved to London.
And, so Jason and I travelled, a lot. We made a home for us in London and made new friends. I started a blog and began documenting stories of people and places. I met with individuals, social groups, and larger communities who were on a mission to do good in the world, even if it meant rustling a few feathers along the way to make change happen. I wanted to tell stories that really mattered and inspired my readers to do the same in their own lives.
I continued to work part-time and on short contracts for non-government organisations in the UK while channeling my energy into my new blog. Friends, and then friends of friends, and then strangers started to get in touch with me to help them with writing copy for their websites, editing their books, and giving advice on how to craft their message. I also started freelance writing for different international magazines and websites. My blog had turned into a small business and accompanied me wherever we travelled in Europe.
You see, since I was about your age, I fell in love with the practice of yoga. I remember sitting in front of my yoga teacher and thinking I would love to be a yoga teacher one day, but that was quickly replaced with thoughts of ‘I’m not good enough’ and ‘There’s no way I could teach confidently like she does.’ But since everything was different in my life and change seemed to be the norm, I went for it. I did my first teacher training in Ubud, Bali, and when I returned to London, I taught my friends, and after several months, in studios in London. All of a sudden, I was international development worker, a writer and a yoga teacher, juggling three jobs but loving it.
When our two-year visa came to end, it was time for home and I was ready. I was ready to be back by the beach and near my family. Over the years, I kept in contact with my yoga teacher Mardi Bell and not long after setting foot in Australia, began teaching at her studio in Terrigal. I realised this wasn’t just a hobby, but something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I loved supporting my students to connect with themselves and the present moment, and hearing how yoga had positively changed their lives.
By this time, my blog was no longer a blog. It had transformed into something bigger. It became Freethinker Co. – a social enterprise that strengthens human connection by way of story (now I have an international storyteller team sharing stories from all around the world), a podcast, which features interviews with everyday change-makers, and communication consulting services.
Still very much in touch with the friends I made during my time with Oxfam, I was then invited to be part of the making a documentary called Carrying Everest. I was asked to join the team as the storyteller – a project, which involved researching, living with and trekking alongside a minority ethnic group in Nepal called the Kulung people as they make their way each trekking season to Everest base camp as porters to make a living. The Kulung people are not recognised by the Nepalese government as an indigenous group with ancestral history and heritage to their homeland. This is is the aim of our documentary – to put the Kulung people on the map, so to speak. Alongside the film, my partner Jason, who is a skilled photographer among other things, and I are creating a coffee table book with the photos and stories of the Kulung. It has certainly been one of the highlights of life to date meeting the Kulung people. They have taught me so much about being grateful and generous, even in the face of adversity and hardship.
Did I think I would be the owner of a yoga studio, involved in a documentary or running a social enterprise when I was your age finishing school? No. In fact, just last week my mum found a piece paper in a wardrobe at home that had my goals scribbled down from when I was in year 12 (a little serendipitous I think). It read: Go to university and study International Studies, travel the world, become a diplomat, feel happy, healthy and safe in my own life, and contribute to creating peace and equality in the world.
Now I may not have taken the political path as I initially thought I would. I instead chose to make a difference in ways that were true to what I value. I chose to advocate for human rights and social change by way of education, empowerment and community mobilisation.
This is what I am doing right now, and it serves me well. In 10 years time, it might look different. Who knows! That’s the fun of it.
So to our year 12 students, yes, be clear about your goals, but more importantly, be clear about why you want to achieve your goals. What desire is driving your motivation?
Try spinning the question on its head. Instead of asking yourself what it is you want to achieve (ie. the end outcome), ask yourself how you want to feel when all is done.
It’s taken me the last 15 years of trial, error, choices and changes to discover my Dharma, and it simply comes back to this. Whatever I am doing, whether it be writing, teaching yoga, advocating for change, or speaking to a room of young leaders like yourself, my purpose is to simply strengthen human connection. You see, when we exchange stories and connect as a community, human to human, faction, fictions and silos dissolve. We realise we’re equal and all in this together.
How do you want to make people feel? Continue to ask yourself that question and the opportunities will present themselves.
Plans will change, and then they’ll likely change again, because you will change.
Don’t be scared of change. Let change motivate you, inspire you, excite you.
Thank you very much.