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Advice for graduating health sciences students

I was delighted to receive the invitation from your Vice Chancellor to give the occasional address for your graduation today. When I first knew Professor Dewar, he was a distinguished professor in the law faculty at Griffith University. I being a Jesuit Catholic priest and human rights lawyer therefore thought I would be addressing law graduates or Arts students today. When I looked more closely at the invitation I realised that you are all graduates in Health Sciences, including specialties in audiology, dietetics, exercise science, occupational therapy, orthoptics, physiotherapy, podiatry, prosthetics and orthotics, rehabilitation counselling and speech pathology. My first reaction was: I don't know what half those things are, and I know nothing whatever about the other half. So what could I possibly say to you which would be of the least relevance or inspiration?

That's our reaction so often nowadays because of the increasing specialisation in our world. We so often feel the impact of our ignorance and the temptation for us all is to live in our professional silos. My first piece of graduation advice to you is: be confident no matter what the specialisation of your discipline that you can contribute intelligently and helpfully to any discussion, provided only that you acknowledge your own limitations and the gifts and expertise of others.

My oldest grandnephew is Liam aged six. His mother, one of my nieces, wrote the other day with news of Liam's latest school assignment at the local primary school. He was asked to use a computer to write the instructions he would give to an intending passenger who had never been on a train before. Liam just loves trains so the mechanical instructions were unsurprisingly very detailed. What did surprise me, and his mother, were the last two points: 'After you've got home, tell yourself if you liked the journey; and, if you liked the journey, ring me. You might like trains as much as me.' My second piece of graduation advice is: Reflection on experience and sharing the reflection on experience in community are constitutive of being a truly educated person. They are not optional extras for those who just happen to have time on their hands.

There is a variety of key influences on our health: genetics, social circumstances, lifestyle, accidents (including violence) and access to health care. There is not much we can do to alter our genetics. With better occupational health and safety at work, good design standards, and improved public infrastructure, we can reduce the risk of accident. Access to health care is usually a matter of government budgetary decisions and geography. What about lifestyle? The World Health Organisation (WHO) and Sir Michael Marmot in the UK have done a power of work finding that social determinants have a big impact on health outcomes. If you are from a poor, dysfunctional family with little education and low job prospects, your health outcomes most probably will be much worse than those of the person from a well off functional family with good education and fine job prospects. The Rudd Government started concerted work on addressing the social determinants of health for indigenous Australians with the annual 'Closing the Gap' report. It is time for a similar approach to address the health needs of marginalised groups in the community generally. This is the challenge for you, the next generation, of allied health professionals. My third piece of graduation advice is: please be especially attentive in Australia to indigenous Australians, asylum seekers, refugees and our newest migrants. These are the people on the edge of our society who most need your inclusive approach and professional care.

Those of us in the Catholic Church have been having a hard time of it recently, facing the reality of child sexual abuse in our ranks and our institutional failure to act promptly enough. But we do have a spring in our step with our new pope Francis who seems to have the knack of being able to engage with the world, able to talk to anyone, happy in his own skin, and unapologetic about what he believes. An American mate of mine Chris Lowney has written an inspiring set of books on Heroic Leadership and Heroic Living. Like me and the pope, he was a Jesuit, but for only a few years. He then went on to become a managing director of J. P. Morgan, one of America's largest investment banks. He served as managing director in three countries. Lowney was here in Melbourne last week and published his latest book Pope Francis: Why he leads the way he leads. Believe it or not, it is a book with great lessons not just for Catholics. After 17 years at J P Morgan, Lowney went on to chair the board of one of America's largest health care and hospital systems. This is how he now describes his role:

I offer modest advice and oversight as our superb management team navigates a rapidly changing health care landscape — shifting laws, new technology, ethical dilemmas, and a dozen other equally complicated challenges. The skills I have most needed were not the narrow technical ones, but broader all encompassing ones, like making complicated decisions when the facts and my values collide; managing my priorities when fifteen things must be done before lunch; knowing when to play decisions safe and when to take major risks; and ultimately, figuring our what is most important in life.

My fourth piece of advice for you is: keep your primary professional training and skills in good knick, but realise that you will have many job changes in life, and that many of you will have management and leadership roles to perform. Your university education has taught you to think and to reflect and to communicate not just in your narrow discipline but in preparation for engagement across disciplines and up and down the structures of large, complex organisations.

I am privileged to serve on the board of St Vincent's Health Australia, the largest Catholic health provider in the country. Every month I sit down at a board table with extraordinarily competent people from diverse disciplines and backgrounds. We work and communicate well together because we share a commitment to the mission and the vision of the organisation. So too it must be for you as competent graduates contributing your best in your workplace.

Let me come back to Christopher Lowney. He says:

Early in my managerial career, whenever we met to evaluate our rising junior executives, one would hear phrases like 'She's great at the numbers' or 'His analytical skills are superb.' Those skills alone might distinguish standout performers from weak ones.

Those narrow technical skills remain essential but are now almost taken for granted, an entry ticket of sorts. As the business environment became more complex, and the pace of change quickened, one started to hear very different phrases at our managerial-evaluation committees: 'She can't deal with ambiguity. She needs too much direction.' Or, 'He doesn't like change, is afraid of taking initiative.' Or, 'He's a lone ranger. He won't play on the team or support other departments.' In fact we started assessing individuals against criteria that once would have been reserved for chief executives alone, such as 'This person has no sense of vision about where this organisation should be going.' Or, encapsulating all the above, 'This guy has to show more leadership if he wants to thrive here.'

So this is my fifth piece of gratuitous advice for you new graduates: don't be afraid to show leadership wherever you be in the food chain of your workplace and whatever your position in Australian society or back in your home country. Embrace change, take initiative, be a team player and support others.

My sixth piece of advice is for all graduates and not just those of you who are religious. We all need to develop a comprehensive worldview, nurturing the sense of the transcendent in the human spirit, and holding together in tension ideals and reality, dreams and our shortcomings. Something crystallised for me at an appearance in March this year at the Opera House with the British philosopher A. C. Grayling, author of The God Argument, and Sean Faircloth, a US director of one of the Dawkins Institutes passionately committed to atheism. We were there to discuss their certainty about the absurdity of religious faith. Mr Faircloth raised what has already become a hoary old chestnut, the failure of Pope Francis when boss of the Jesuits in Argentina during the Dirty Wars to adequately defend his fellow Jesuits who were detained and tortured by unscrupulous soldiers. Being a Jesuit, I thought I was peculiarly well situated to respond. I confess to having got a little carried away. I exclaimed: Yes, how much better it would have been if there had been just one secular, humanist, atheist philosopher who had stood up in the city square in Buenos Aires and shouted, 'Stop it!' The military junta would have collectively come to their senses, stopped it, and Argentinians would have lived happily ever after. The luxury for such philosophers is that they never have to get their hands dirty and they think that religious people who do are hypocrites unless of course they take the course of martyrdom. All of us, whether religious or not, and whatever our religion, need to be able to hold together in the one body ideals and reality, dreams and shortcomings. Ultimately we need to embrace some notion of love and forgiveness if we are to reach our full human potential.

My seventh piece of advice is very simple: look around; thank those loved ones who have supported you this far on your journey; celebrate your achievement; happily acknowledge those in the academic line who did even better than you; and commit yourself to emulating all that is finest in the best of teachers you encountered here at La Trobe. If those in the health sciences followed these seven snippets of advice, I dare to think the world would be a happier and healthier place. Congratulations, and go well.

Frank Brennan headshotFr Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law at Australian Catholic University, and adjunct professor at the College of Law and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, Australian National University. The above text is from his La Trobe Graduation Address, Health Sciences, 18 October 2013.

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