Above and beyond ‘our thing’

This is a commencement speech given by Genevieve Thompson at the July 2022  ANU Graduation Ceremonies.

Before I commence, I wish to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land we are meeting on, the Ngunnawal people, and pay respect to the elders past and present.

Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, distinguished faculty, friends, family, and graduands, I want you to think back to what your first dream career was. I'm sure you were all asked at one point, “What do you want to be when you grow up”.

My very first memory of answering this question, was in kindergarten, where I replied, “an opera singer”. This was closely followed by a “fire truck”. The years that followed led to many different answers; a gymnast, a florist, an archaeologist, a vet, a police officer, a doctor, a surgeon, a politician, an actor, a marine biologist, a pilot, and the list goes on.

It's not until we're in high school that the concept of finding, what I like to call your ‘thing’, starts to come into play. Phrases like, oh they're a ‘theatre kid’, or a ‘science kid’, or a ‘sporty kid’... That ‘thing’ we’re looking for is something we can hold onto and say, “this is what I’m good at, this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life” and, for some, “this is my meaning”. 

It doesn’t help that in high school we’re told the subjects we choose will dictate the course we can get into at Uni and therefore the path we're to take when we leave school. For some people, this is easy. But for many, like myself, it’s not that simple. In addition, today’s society tends to romanticise this idea of one true calling, which for someone like myself and many others I know, makes this journey we’re on complex.

I've been lucky enough to travel all around my home state of Victoria as well as other parts of Australia, to run seminars for high school students on maximising their study habits and creating foundational belief systems to use to achieve whatever their goals may be. A common conversation is their favourite subjects and their plans for university or further education. So often I hear students say “oh I'm not good at maths”, or “English isn’t my thing” regardless of whether it’s a school subject or not, I'm sure all of us here have said something similar. By saying phrases like that, to an extent, it becomes part of our identity.

Some people come to university to find their ‘thing’. For myself, that's exactly what I was hoping for and had already somewhat convinced myself that it would be something science as that is what seemed like an acceptable answer.

One thing I came to realise during my degrees, and I say this with the outmost compassion as I too have spent so much time, energy, and passion on my studies in science, is that science is not the ‘be all and end all’. That random elective unit you thought just filled the blank, provided you with key skills in creativity and questioning. The ultimate frisbee club provided you with integrative teamwork and mentoring experience. The retail job you worked provided you with skills in communicating to all sorts of people, as well as money to spend on travelling and indulging in life. Being a good student isn’t just doing well in tests and exams, it’s also about how much you can improve from the time before, how you question your own beliefs, and how you communicate and engage with others. Each one of these skills and experiences is valid and important. Just as important as the degree you are being awarded today. How lucky are we to be in a place that fosters this?

Genevieve Thompson has graduated from The John Curtin School of Medical Research with Master of Neuroscience (Advanced). Image: Genevieve Thompson

And a crazy thought: this isn't the end.

Graduating today may be a moment of clarity. Perhaps your journey through this university degree provided you with that inspiration or direction. Or maybe you're sitting here thinking, this is great... but what next? For a lot of us, looking ahead can seem like a twisty, squiggly, loop-the-loop road. But if we look back over the last 3, 5 or even 10 years, the path we were on led us straight to where we are right now. Instead of spending energy searching for this ‘thing’ that we can’t say for sure is out there, and identifying ourselves by what we can't do, perhaps we could work with passion and take pride in what we have right in front of us.

To be an ANU student, we’re provided with all the tools to do just that, all of which couldn’t be done without the people around us, so thank you—thank you to the lecturers, tutors, supervisors, advisors, professional staff, baristas, and of course, our colleagues, friends, and family.

So, after this, I can confidently say that I don't have one ‘thing’ or a true calling. But I can say that I’m curious and excited by neuroscience and medical biotechnology, am a mediocre cyclist, a hiker, a gym junkie, a Michael Bublé superfan, a listener, a teacher, a friend, a sister, and a daughter.

So next time someone asks, “what do you do, or what’s your thing?” I challenge you to not default to listing what you’re not good at, or what just sounds like an acceptable path. This journey at ANU has provided us with so much more than just our thing.