Some advice from an Old Girl

Julia Macdonald with J Poole and Kim Bonniface

 L-R: Headmistress Judith Poole, Abbotsleigh Old Girl Julia MacDonald (2013)  and Kim Boniface (Anderson, 1985), President Abbotsleigh Old Girls' Union. 

At the annual Abbotsleigh Old Girls' Union lunch hosted in honour of the departing Year 12 students, the School invited back Abbotsleigh Old Girl Julia MacDonald (2013) to impart some words of advice and encouragement to the girls about life after the HSC. Julia shared, with great poise, some very relevant and meaningful  life tips to the students.  Below is an extract of Julia's speech to the girls. 


It is interesting to me that I am here to impart a few words of wisdom when to a great extent I feel I am still a bit of a novice at life and I too am seeking out mentors and their wisdom. But perhaps that is the whole point. That no matter where you are in life, there is something to learn and it is worthwhile reaching out to each other to share and for help and support.

I remember being acutely aware of the dichotomy between the messages concerning the HSC. On the one hand it seems to be all about the results, maximising your ATAR, getting in to your chosen course. On the other hand, you also hear that you are not your ATAR, that there’s always a plan B, you can always transfer courses. Essentially there is truth in all of it. Having been in your shoes, may I say take heart, you are well equipped! You have been blessed with good teachers whose seemingly sadistic assignments and tests have you well prepared. And you have each other. The most useful advice I can give you for the next few weeks is to hang in there, leave nothing on the table, be proud of your efforts, forget about the results and consider that the end is in sight.   


Julia MacDonald speaking

Political activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu said “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all the darkness”. As the high of leaving school dissipates and the reality of the final hurdle sets in, let the hope of all that lies ahead whatever it may be, be the beacon driving you forward. Because clichéd as it may sound, it is the beginning of a whole new chapter and each of you will start to craft your very own story. So, with the hope of the next phase in mind, I thought it might be useful to share a few insights I have gained over the last few years.


Don’t seek happiness, but chase gratitude
Happiness is an incredibly fleeting ideal to seek; it is both too subjective and susceptible to change. As simplistic as it may sound, I have found that if you explicitly focus on identifying something good in every day, you will not only feel more satisfied but will have a greater sense of perseverance. When we take a step back, we often find that problems which seemed huge at the time were indeed surmountable, notwithstanding the pain and irritation it may have caused for a time. Consider your blessings, cultivate a sense of gratitude rather than complaint and contentment will follow.  


Don’t rush, embrace flexibility  
This may seem strange but this was one of the biggest lessons I learned in the first year of University. It is now almost embarrassing how stressed out I was about getting through University quickly so I could proceed according to my plan. I chose a fairly vocational degree: Commerce, majoring in Accounting and Commercial Law – and I had my career all set out right from the beginning.. I like to have everything worked out and ticking along perfectly and on schedule. It’s insane. Life is just not that ordered, and frankly, it needn’t be rushed. Don’t confuse focussing on a career path, or even having ambition with the need to have it all worked out and achieved quickly. Sometimes our plans become our security blanket, but they can also smother possibilities not to mention hamper our ability to grow.  Luckily, I learned to let go, take a breather, to question my pre conceptions. I started to embrace what University was really about – that is, the enjoyment of learning. I extended my degree by a year by changing to Commerce (Liberal Studies), and am now majoring in History as well as the two Commerce majors. As soon as I became less compulsive about following a set inflexible path, I became more open to other possibilities. While I am off to intern at the accounting firm PwC at the end of this year and certainly hope that I’ll love it, I’m also toying with the idea of postgraduate study – most likely in Arts. 

Continue to surround yourself with women 
I will admit I may have taken this to the extreme since I live in a college with 300 other women.. Men and their male perspective are great but there is nothing better than the connection you get from surrounding yourself with smart, capable women who are making their way in the world. Of course I am not suggesting that you have to live with a bunch of women, but I really recommend seeking and maintaining connections with the many great women out there. We share a path in what is still a predominantly male world. And no, 'feminism' is not a redundant term. Simply put, women are still paid less, girls are still told to modify their dress or their behaviour lest they attract unwanted male attention, and female comedians are hounded to the extent that they can’t exist on the internet. As you can tell, you can take the girl out of Abbotsleigh but not Abbotsleigh out of the girl. And thank goodness, because the outside world is not the feminist utopia that we have here, and I know you are more than capable of taking it on. 

Be a dork
Some people equate apathy and cynicism with being cool. It’s not. I urge you to define yourself not by what you dislike, but by what you love. Develop your interests, educate yourselves about issues, have an opinion, put them out there and back them up. It takes a lot more courage to stand by what you love unashamedly – but I don’t know one person who pursued an interest and didn’t find a plethora of people who shared it. Even the cynical poster child for every late teen, including myself, Holden Caulfield, said “I like it when people get excited, it’s nice”. 

Be kind
Be kind to yourself and to others. There is a bit of a myth that once you finish the HSC life will suddenly click. I don't want to be negative, because it is wonderful – you finally have some freedom to explore all of the possibilities you've been toying with. But with this freedom inevitably comes a great sense of uncertainty, being lost at sea. I want you to know that that’s ok. It’s normal. Also, look after your body and your emotional well-being. Yale Graduate and preeminent psychologist Robert Leahy outlines that “the average high school child today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s”. In a sense, mental health is like an oxygen mask on an airplane. You need to take care of your own before you can help other people. There is not enough kindness in the world. Use words that build up rather than tear down, smile first, be sincere. The Ancient Greek author Aesop said “No act of kindness no matter how small is wasted”.

I remember we used to joke “Abbotsleigh never lets you leave”, but the beauty in that is that there is always this wonderful group of Old Girls to take you in. And believe you me – the HSC can’t chuck anything at you that’s worse than what your teachers have already dealt. 



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