The future is female
While The Women’s College at the University of Sydney has long been a home to high-achieving scholars, it’s definitively future-facing with innovative programs for young women. Here, one of the college’s alumnae, now philanthropy coordinator, tells how the opportunities she was granted instilled in her a desire to give back.
Alisha King’s first experience of The Women’s College came in Year 11, when she represented her school at a prestigious leadership course. Fifty students from public schools around Australia spent a week at the all-female residential college, established in 1892, on The University of Sydney campus.
The incident was transformative for King, who lived almost four hours’ drive from Sydney in Forster and was hoping to be the first woman in her family to attend university. “I’d never had that exposure to women who were really supporting each other and wanting to achieve,” she says. “Being around strong female role models, who were so confident and passionate – it made me feel that anything was possible.”
When King arrived at The Women’s College in 2011 as a first-year science student on a scholarship, she discovered the many other benefits of being part of a caring, positive community. A senior student, or academic assistant, helped her navigate the challenging transition from school to university, including tips on timetabling, writing essays and taking notes. Small tutorial groups, lead by the college’s academic fellows, helped her excel in her studies. And another senior student was her resident assistant, acting like a big sister who looked after her emotional wellbeing. “I just fell in love with it when I got there – it felt like home from very early on,” says King, who still has more than 20 close friends from college. “It’s like you’re on a sleepover for three or four years with these amazing, diverse women.”
Equally important for King was the mentoring and leadership programs that gave her a career edge once she left university. At formal dinners every Monday night, high-achieving speakers, such as then Westpac CEO Gail Kelly, inspired students to strive high. In her third year, she spoke monthly to Julie McKay, then executive director of UN Women Australia, about working in the not-for-profit sector.
By the time King was elected leader of the 285-strong student body in 2013, she was determined to give back and help others experience the advantages of The Women’s College. She set up the student-run Pay-It-Forward philanthropic fund to encourage scholarship holders like herself to donate what they could to repay their good fortune. “To me, it was a bit of a no-brainer to support the women of the future,” says King, who now contributes $50 a month towards her goal of $10,000. Over the past six years, many Women’s College alumnae have participated.
King credits her college experience with landing her first post-university job on the highly selective Teach for Australia program, which combines a Master of Teaching with two years’ work as a secondary school teacher in lower socioeconomic communities. “I would never have got a look-in without my leadership experiences at college,” says King. “College is a massive leg-up, an investment to accelerate your future career success.”
The career benefits don’t end with the first job; King says The Women’s College’s extensive alumnae network reaches into every sector of the workforce and every corner of the globe. “They open doors, they make introductions, they invite you to stay with them,” says King. “They are women helping each other. They want to make all of us shine.”
Last year, King returned to live and work at The Women’s College, in charge of philanthropy and alumnae relations.
A key focus is the campaign to raise $5 million over five years for the college’s stunning new Sibyl Centre, opened by former governor-general and the college’s past principal Dame Quentin Bryce in March.
The $25 million curved, three-level building houses a second library, tutorial rooms, an auditorium, light-filled design rooms and soundproof music rooms, as well as a rooftop terrace and courtyard. The centre is named after a character in a play commissioned for the college in 1913. The Greek prophetess predicted the future achievements of women – as relevant today as it was then. “The centre is designed for women and mainly funded by women,” says King. “It’s a bold statement of what we stand for.”
“College is a massive leg-up – an investment to accelerate your future career success.”
Pictured: Alisha King in front of the Sibyl Centre