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‘No matter what your life is, choosing it changes everything’

By December 18, 2018January 19th, 2021No Comments

CEF CEO, Wendy Cohen, was recently invited to be the keynote speaker at the Charles Sturt University, Orange 2018 graduation.

Wendy, a CSU alumnus herself, understands the importance of such a momentous life event and shared with the graduates some insights informed by both professional and personal experiences, as well as her love for tennis.  

We welcome you to have a read and see how education has shaped, inspired and motivated Wendy’s career and life.

CEO’s keynote speech inspires CSU graduates


“Congratulations to you all here today – you’ve all achieved, you’ve all prevailed  in the face of many challenges, you’ve all had victories and experienced defeats, but you’ve been on a wonderful journey that sees you here today, as CSU Alums.

Thank you to CSU for your kind invitation to speak today, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land and our distinguished guests.

When considering the theme of my speech today – and there were many options – I wanted to choose something which would, in its own way mean something to you, in a general way or a more personal way. So I landed on heroes – yours, mine, society’s  – and look to them to inspire our own thoughts about the how we chose them, how we become them, how we allow them to inform who we are, and actually, how education may have impacted on their lives – and the lessons we can learn from their experiences and views.

As a proud CSU alum, I’m honoured to be able to talk to you today, and more importantly I am thrilled to see so many engaged, ambitious and talented young people that are our future – tomorrow’s heroes.  And maybe ask, how will you become a hero to someone yourself?

I’m a proud mother too, and in my own little way perhaps a hero myself – to my seven-year-old son when I fix one of his Star Wars mini figures lightsabres or find a long-lost cherished piece of Lego!

Education has been the most important part of my life, the means to professional and personal opportunities, travel, and ultimately a fulfilling life. My father was a principal of tiny schools in NSW. As a kid I was dragged from small village to small village across the state and valued my dad’s passion for learning. Be it reading books like Frankenstein, watching Life on Earth, performing in end of year school concerts, debating at the Opera House or forcing myself to appreciate the beauty of maths and science even though it wasn’t my forte. Learning reminded me of the big wide world we live in, one that even whilst living in the middle of nowhere in regional NSW, I knew I was a part of. Learning was, in fact, my ticket to where ever I wanted to go, the ultimate escape.

My father was, like many of you perhaps, my first hero. Since my youth I’ve sunk my teeth into many other heroes, and oddly enough they all seem to represent the very best qualities I have always wanted to embody – but in all reality, generally fall short of having. Courage, determination, resilience, the ability to bounce back from failure and try again. One such hero of mine might surprise you, here are some things they’ve said which might resonate with you at some point in your life and articulate why we value education.

 “My lack of education, a lack of choice, had a huge impact. The question always remains: what might you have done? But I don’t have any deep regrets.”

And then;

“Even if it’s not your ideal life, you can always choose it. No matter what your life is, choosing it changes everything.”

These are quotes are from an over achiever, a person who was the best in the world at their very niche job off and on for more than 15 years. He actually hated his job and felt like he had no choice in it. He had millions of adoring fans, made a fortune, met his wife as a result and yet still sees his lack of education as defining him – a missed opportunity to be the person he wanted and wants to be. His name is Andre Agassi.

You may or may not have heard of him, but he won many tennis tournaments, including the French Open, Wimbledon, the Australian Open and a gold medal at the Olympics. At one point in his career he plummeted to outside the top 100 and came back through sheer grit and determination, suffering intense training sessions as a 30-plus player – old for his sport – to reclaim number one ranking and even more grand slam titles. My point is – embrace your choices, celebrate your education, that you have been able to choose that path and ultimately know how cherished education is, even by those who, by any other standards is outrageously successful, despite not having it. We cannot take education and the choices it provides for granted.

Interestingly Agassi now dedicates his life to ensuring that others can access education and use its power to change their lives. He sees giving back, through his education foundation and schools for disadvantaged kids in the US, and helping people as his reason for being. He says:

“This is the only perfection there is, the perfection of helping others. This is the only thing we can do that has any lasting value or meaning. This is why we’re here. To make each other feel safe.” 

This creates a nice segue to talk about community, giving back, connecting with people – loved ones, peers, strangers. I’ve been fortunate enough during my most recent professional experiences to witness the importance of giving back – with compassion and empathy. More of those qualities I have long admired in others, and now am working hard to embrace myself. Some of my most profound interactions with others, some of the most impressive people I’ve ever met are the unsung heroes of the disability sector – carers and support workers and, now in my current job, volunteers who give up their time to help others or provide opportunities for others. They seem to get what Andre Agassi is talking about. I urge you to consider connecting with others through these means in any way you can through your life.

In my current role at Country Education Foundation of Australia I have spoken with many students and alumni ambassadors who tell me of their own heroes. Once recent story was from Stevie in Broken Hill. Her father is disabled and some years ago, on a very remote property in the district, he suffered a heart attack. Stevie was a young girl and they were quite helpless. The Royal Flying Doctor Service attended the scene, airlifted her dad to Adelaide and ultimately saved his life. Stevie, now 18 and facing significant financial challenges herself, is about to enrol in aviation studies at university – the first in family to attend uni – and her aim to is to be a pilot with the Flying Doctors. Stevie has her heroes, it changed her life and now, frankly, Stevie is one of my heroes.

Still on heroes – those I value most, head and shoulders above anyone else are the friends I have from my days at CSU. The most valuable memories from my uni days were not what I learnt about marketing a new phone, writing a media release or how not to split an infinitive. It was connecting with people who reflected and validated my values, challenged decisions and views, enriched my life and to this day support and embrace me. Afterall, the people you share your life with is what makes it special, is what gives it purpose and clarity. I know you value your friendships, in time I’m sure you’ll come to realise your friends next to you today will play an enormous role in who you are tomorrow.

One of those friends proved to me the value of education once – in a marvellous and slightly bizarre way. Robin, a Harrow-educated young man, spoke many languages, including Latvian – of all things! On New Year’s Eve in 1998, a group of us had double-booked a friend’s house in North East London and came off second best in a game of scissors, paper, rock. So had to leave to drive across London for 40 minutes to another friends’ place. It was about minus 15 degrees outside with the wind chill. Robin’s car, laden with cheap sparkling wine, fish and all our luggage, broke down, about half-way through the journey. We were in Neasden, near Wembley. We’d stopped in what looked like an abandoned industrial site. The water in the car had frozen and we were unable to catch a cab. In the distance we saw a light. Robin, the hero of the night, went to speak to a small crew of men, huddled around an oven. They had a kettle with water we could use to defrost the water in the engine. They were from Latvia and only spoke Latvian. The moral of the story is education gives you more power than you know, and perhaps when you least expect it!

Given the nature of the courses you are graduating from today you are so well placed to be heroes to many. I have so much admiration for your endeavours and your commitment to making the world a better place. Well done. It does get tougher though, and you’ll need internal fortitude and also help from others – perhaps they’ll turn into your heroes along the way.

I want to finish with a quick, funny story from the other day starring my newest little fluffy hero. My slightly dopey, very cute dog. Until the other day I’m not sure I would have classed him as my hero, but this particular day he was having a ‘zoomy’ episode – running frenetically around the house, out the sliding door, back inside – as happy and as enabled as he could be. I had opened the door and was encouraging him to play. Then he came inside and I closed the clear glass door. He continued to zoom and then, almost in slow motion, decided to run through the closed glass door again. The thud was sickening. He bounced and buckled, went down, looked up at me with a dazed look, shook his little head and off he went again, zooming, having great fun. The glass door being closed stopped him momentarily but ultimately did not stop him on his way and he didn’t look back, except to say he stayed away from the door, just found another path at that time. I only wish I could have that approach to life and the obstacles in my way more often. The moral of THAT story is even when you are in full flight, life has a way of trying to stop you. If you can shake it off and learn, and then continue, you’ll be well set up for everything you’ll encounter in a full and happy life. Having that resilience and considered perspective, AND a sense of humour will be your sword and shield.

Congratulations Class of 2018, I look forward to hearing your stories of success, and tales of how you’ve impacted the lives of others, and your own.”


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