The head of a residential hall creates a gentle and accepting environment for students new to Canberra
Marion Stanton recalls the long train trip in the 1980s from Armidale, in northern NSW, to Canberra, where she was about to start undergraduate studies at the Australian National University.
It was her first trip to Canberra, and the 17 year-old’s emotions fluctuated between excitement and apprehension. The journey would change her life.
Marion was to spend her undergraduate years living in an extraordinary community of scholars on campus – Bruce Hall, the oldest ANU residential college, named for the first chancellor of the university, Lord Stanley Melbourne Bruce.
Now, via a circuitous route that has taken her through politics, the airline industry and motherhood, she has returned to the college as Head of Hall. Like many of the turning points in her life, her position at the Hall came about through a series of coincidences. “Most people have more straightforward career trajectories,” she says.
Marion aims to strengthen the international network of alumni who have passed through the Hall since it was established in 1961.
Marion won a National Undergraduate Scholarship to the ANU. She undertook a Bachelor of Arts degree, doing honours in English and history. “Getting the scholarship to the ANU was pivotal,” she says. “I would probably have studied at UNE [University of New England] in Armidale. I had never been to Canberra, and to get an education at the sort of level that the ANU provided was fantastic.”
She has fond memories of her days in Bruce Hall, where she would meet her future husband. “I had a wonderful time living on campus and learning about myself,” she says.
When today’s residents ask her about her time at the college, she paints a picture of freer university life in a “less litigious world”, with hard academic work counterbalanced by student pranks. “People didn’t talk so much about risk management then,” she says.
On completion of her bachelor’s degree at age 21, she planned to travel overseas when the then head of hall, the foundation warden Bill Packard, offered her the job as deputy warden.
“I thought I’d give it a shot,” she says. “Everyone thought he was mad appointing a 21 year-old in that role.”
She worked at Bruce Hall for two years while also working full-time in the public service. Then, through coincidence, she landed a job working for the Liberal parliamentarian Julian Beale while he was opposition spokesman on education. That started a 10-year stint in federal and state politics.
Later, she worked on setting up an organisation aimed at suicide prevention. Then, in 1999, she took a job at Ansett advising operational staff on government relations. However, she was stood down when the airline went into administration.
Her family moved back to Armidale, where she worked in the vice-chancellor’s office at UNE while her husband, a lawyer, became an academic.
She says much of her early career was devoted to providing advice to, or negotiating on behalf of, others. While at UNE, she realised that what she wanted next was her own “little team to manage”.
She saw the job as Head of Bruce Hall advertised. “We laughed about it,” she says. “I applied for it and got it. It was not planned. It was serendipitous. I had never thought of working in a residential sphere, but I’m very glad about it. It has been a really interesting and rewarding role.”
She says the job draws on all of her experience. “It calls on a whole range of skills,” she says. “It’s a managerial job. I’ve got a budget and staff to manage. But it’s very different from other managerial jobs. It’s all about people. More specifically, it’s about people in transition.”
Bruce Hall has just over 330 residents, mostly undergraduates aged in their late teens. They come from around Australia and the world. (Due to the high demand for on-campus living, the college does not offer accommodation to locals.)
“They’re adjusting to life away from normal networks and relationships,” Marion says. “They’re dislocated from their normal networks of support – from their family, school friends and, in many cases, from their cultures. In most cases, when they arrive here, they know no one else. They’re looking for an academic adventure as well as a personal adventure. They’re trying to fit in.”
About 60 per cent of residents are Australians, about half of them hailing from regional areas. Many of the others come from Sydney and Melbourne.
The international students come from some 30 countries, with many of them from Asia, especially Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Pakistan. But there are students from the Middle East, Europe and the Americas as well. “They all add up to a very dynamic mix,” she says.
“For most, it’s the first time they’ve lived outside their home country.” It is an experience she can identify with. From age 14, she lived in the United Kingdom for nearly two years when her father, an academic, went on sabbatical at Oxford University. “It forced me outside my comfort zone,” she says. “I hated it at first. But by the time I came back to do the HSC, I was a completely changed person. I had a broader outlook on life. Living in Oxford was really pivotal.”
The Hall provides residents accommodation and three meals a day seven days a week. It provides a range of facilities and services including internet access and a new computer room. The college runs a high table series, with speakers including politicians and lawyers, and an academic mentoring network.
Then there are the musical and debating competitions between the colleges, and sports, including all football codes, hockey, basketball, netball and swimming. “There’s a whole range of things that overlay the basic bed and board service,” she says. “They’re all designed to add to the students’ experience at university.”
Marion says “lots of things have changed but lots of thing have not” since she lived at Bruce Hall. She says she has continued a trend that was established long ago. “It’s perhaps a gentler, more accepting, environment where people – staff and students – really genuinely respect each other,” she says. “But it was in transition anyway.”
She has been working to make the Hall “feel like a bigger, broader lifelong community”, something she got from the Hall. She wants to strengthen the community of alumni – many of them leaders in academe, government and industry – dispersed across the world. “That’s something I hope will be continued when I leave,” she says. “It can’t be done in a day.”
At university, Marion’s main mentor was an inspirational history lecturer, Daphne Gollan, who was passionate about all of the things that led to, and flowed from, the 1917 Russian revolution.
In her career, she worked mainly in male dominated areas with no female role models. She counts Victoria’s Rod Kemp and Rob Knowles as major mentors during her stint in politics.
Marion has negotiated several obstacles – the vagaries of politics and business – but when “things have gone wrong, in the end there were opportunities”, she says. “When Ansett went down, that was confronting,” she says. “I was on maternity leave, having my second child. But in the end, I wouldn’t be here if that hadn’t happened. I’d probably still be working in the corporate sector in Melbourne.”
She says her three children have forced her to balance work and life to an extent. “I love my work and I love my family as well,” she says. “So many of us are rushing about, not doing anything particularly well. I spend all of my life rushing.”
Her gender has not hindered her in her career. “I don’t think I have been held back,” she says. “Politics and the airline industry are very male dominated, the university, so much less so, but in the higher echelons there are relatively few women,” she says.
However, she says having children “impacts on a woman’s life more than a man’s in career terms”. “I don’t think that’s a reflection on the individual woman or man,” she says.
“Workplaces are not particularly friendly to parenting. There’s been a huge adjustment, with paid parental leave but in terms of getting back into the workforce, workplaces don’t do the same things for men as they do for women,” she says, referring to flexibility of hours of work. “That has to change before men and women are really equal in the workplace.”
Although deciding against having children could give some women an advantage in their careers, Marion is content with her choice. “I would have done things differently if I didn’t have children but I wouldn’t change it for the world,” she says.
One former Bruce Hall resident says Marion’s task is Herculean – “navigating young adult issues and managing various quarter-life crises on a day-to-day basis”.
“Even the best and brightest of us lose our way, and I have watched Marion help so many residents find their feet again and put them back on track,” she says. “She does this by providing good coaching and adult guidance, but mostly by choosing to believe in the best of us. Marion is an inspiration to me because in her heart, she has room for 300.”