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Speech

Victoria University Wellington graduation ceremony

Issue date: 
Monday, 18 December 2017
Speaker: 
The Rt Hon Dame Patsy Reddy, GNZM, QSO

E te Manukura, e te Tumu whakarae, tēnā kōrua.

Koutou ngā tauira o te rā, tēnā koutou. 

Otira, tēnā tatau katoa i ēnei whakapōtaetanga.

Chancellor, Vice-chancellor, academic staff, graduands, families and friends.

Graduation ceremonies are a wonderful way of marking the successful conclusion of an academic journey.  In my case my academic study ended nearly four decades ago.

I am honoured to have been chosen for this prestigious award from my own almer mater and I’m delighted to have the opportunity to share this moment of celebration with you all.

Like many people returning to their alma mater, I’ve been drawn to thinking about my years at Victoria.  I started university at age 17, fresh from Hamilton Girls High School, excited about the opportunity to live in a big City – the capital of our country – in 1972.

It was an exciting time, when the baby boomer generation was challenging the world order in so many ways - we were protesting about injustice and discrimination in many forms.  At Victoria, it was the Vietnam war, French Nuclear testing in the Pacific and Rugby tours with apartheid South Africa that seized the collective student imagination.But some of us were also enthusiastic supporters of the second wave of feminism.In my first week at Victoria University a rampant Germaine Greer came to speak on campus. She was extraordinary – I’d never seen a woman so strident, so passionate and so persuasive.I was captivated.

There were only a handful of female law students in my year and we saw ourselves as trailblazers.After all, even though the first female lawyer had been admitted in NZ in 1897, the number of women practising law was still small and we’d never had a female judge or QC.

The list of accepted careers for women was much narrower then than it is now. Choosing to study law was a declaration that we were not going to be pigeonholed. In fact, making the decision to go into a male dominated occupation felt like a radical act.

But we knew the world was changing and we felt confident that we were the vanguard of the New World Order. Sadly, some 45 years later, there’s still more work for us all to do.

For me, studying law also offered the opportunity to forge a completely separate identity from my parents, who were both teachers.

And so it was in 1976, that I sat in the auditorium at the Wellington Town Hall, ready to receive my LLB.  I’d like to say I felt a pang of sadness at leaving Victoria, but while I had enjoyed my studies, I couldn’t wait to be off and out into the world.

Sadly, while I was raring to go, the legal world had apparently missed the memo telling them that girls could do anything and declined to hire me.  Instead, I took a junior lectureship in the Law faculty at Victoria, grateful for the opportunity to earn a little more money than my male counterparts who joined the servitude of law clerking, but knowing that as well as teaching I would be expected to undertake more study, for an LLM.  While I wouldn’t say I slunk back with my tail between my legs, I couldn’t help noticing the irony that somehow, I had ended up teaching.

In fact, my extra time in the law faculty was valuable and it prepared me well for my eventual entry into a law firm five years later. The whole experience was an instructive lesson in one of the great universal truths - that we should always expect the unexpected.

Planning is one of the tools that human beings use to bring form and structure to an essentially chaotic universe. We live by our calendars, we mark time, we draw up task lists and write down our goals – graduate, senior, associate, partner – all to be achieved by a certain date or age. Even in retirement, we’re racing around ticking items off our bucket lists.

Our plans give us something to work towards. Without them, we’d have no reason to get out of bed. It’s somehow comforting to have the illusion that we’re in control.

What I have come to believe though, is that it is the unexpected things that truly shape our lives and us as people.

There is a lot of truth to the saying that “life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans”. We all get thrown curve balls along the way. There are the jobs we don’t get, the relationships that end badly, the death of loved ones, illness, redundancy. The list of mishaps and tragedies that can befall us is long and no one sails through life unscathed

But it is these things, these unexpected events, that teach us what it is to be human, making us stronger, wiser and helping us to understand the lives of others.

By the same token, it is the unexpected that sends us off in new directions. People have moved countries for the sake of the person they met in a café they weren’t intending to go to. Whole careers have been built as a result of people being in the wrong place at the right time or from having the courage to say yes to a suggestion out of the blue.

I myself moved from law into the corporate world on the basis of a job offer made in a lift. Maybe I would have made the move eventually, but at the time, it was definitely something out of left field.

My point is, that while planning and preparing is good, having the courage to fully embrace everything life hands us, good and bad, can be so much more rewarding.  And remember to enjoy the life you are living. 

By graduating from university, you have achieved a remarkable milestone in your life. While, going on my experience, you will probably not remember this ceremony in 40 years time, you will likely look back on your university years as life changing. VUW graduates have a long and distinguished record of contribution to our country and internationally, through public service.Among you are our future leaders. We look to you to continue that proud tradition.

I wish you all the best for your future. You have reached the finish line, another start line lies ahead. Make your plans carefully but be sure to allow room for the magic of the unexpected.

I know that when I graduated what I expected to have was a career in law, not a life in business or the public sector.And I definitely did not dream that I would be the Governor-General.

As it happens, I discovered at a recent school reunion, that apparently my teenage self once had a very different career goal in mind;

In my high school year book I listed that my ambition was to become “World Dictator”.

My term ends in four years. So there’s still time!

Kia ora, huihui tātou katoa.

Last updated: 
Monday, 18 December 2017

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