The keys to opportunity--education, persistence and hard work.

Author:Coleman, Ian Roy
Position:Occasional Address


Growing up and attending a state high school in outer western Sydney in the 1960s, I barely knew what judges did, much less that I would one day become one. With few exceptions, the parents of children born in the decade following World War II were fiercely determined to secure the best possible start in life for their children, and saw education as the means of doing so. For my parents' generation, university education was rare, essentially for the well off, and, having been diverted into one aspect or other of 'the war effort' for five or six years after leaving school, not something which was then realistically available to them, if it ever had been. Without necessarily understanding why, that generation realised the value of university education, and I do not mean value in a purely financial sense, although that was certainly part of its attraction. I do not recall when I first thought I would like to go to university, or why, which is not surprising, as I really had no idea what a university was. I confess that the prospect of working at Warragamba Dam, or the gravel quarry, or, worse still, in the bank provided powerful motivation to apply myself at school. By the 1960s, universities, of which there were then two in Sydney, were more accessible by children from 'working class families' as ours undoubtedly was, via Commonwealth Scholarships. To university students who have only known HECS, the all expenses paid, no repayment scholarship, for not one, but two undergraduate degrees, must sound too good to be true, but it was. My siblings and I, and thousands of other Australians, only gained a university education because of the availability of Commonwealth Scholarships. Our parents could never have sent us to university otherwise, and even then, could only do so by making personal sacrifices. The scholarships cannot have been too hard to 'win'--I got one with passes which, even now, I prefer not to reveal!

I would like to say that the prospect of commencing university in 1968 was a daunting experience, but it is hard to be daunted by, or about, something you had no idea about, or expectations of. I can say however that my first year was unfailingly intimidating, and that, within days of commencing, I wondered what I was doing at university, and was certain that I would only be there for one year. The term 'westie' did not emerge until after I had completed my university studies, so I can perhaps suggest that, for the first and only time, I was ahead of my time, in being a westie at Sydney University. Every morning, we westies boarded the train from Penrith and headed east. The journey took one roasting, or freezing hour, depending upon the time of year, packed sardine like in the 'red rattlers'. From Redfern station, we walked to the campus. Each afternoon, we reversed the journey, and did it all the day after, and the day after that. No money, no sophistication, no fancy clothes, we felt, and were, very much 'out of it' in the first year at university. Knowing what our parents were giving up, we stuck at it: train, lectures, Fisher Library, more lectures, train, do it all again tomorrow. It was not unenjoyable, and I did not expect it to be anything more, but, to this day, when I hear people talk about the great times they had at university, I wonder where I must have been going all those years.

To my considerable surprise, and immense relief, I passed all my first year subjects, only just in one or two instances. To my further surprise, so did all my westie friends, whilst many of the 'cool' set did not. I suddenly thought that it might just be possible for me to go the distance! Not that anything changed, except perhaps that some new trains were put onto the western line, and the vending machine under Fisher Library began stocking finger buns with pink icing. The years passed quickly, or so it now seems, and I suddenly found myself entitled to write Bachelor of Arts after my name. The tangible benefits of that acquisition were soon realised--my pay as a casual postie delivering mail around Penrith on a pushbike went up--because I had a university degree. Three years later, I was entitled to write Bachelor of Laws after my name, and did, countless times on sheets of paper I would stare at in amazement. After six years at university, it was time to venture into the real world, and get a job that did not involve milking cows, or pumping petrol, or delivering mail.

To be admitted to the practice of law in the 1970s, two years articles of clerkship needed to be served with a senior solicitor. This could be anything from being paid for two years to learn the trade from barristers and solicitors whose services were in great demand, and priced accordingly, as was my good fortune, to collecting dry cleaning, washing cars and standing in queues for hours at the...

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