Duchesne College Academic Dinner, St Lucia
Tuesday, 2 March 2021
Delivered by Professor Deborah Terry AO, Vice-Chancellor and President, The University of Queensland

Thank you, Lana.  

I, too, acknowledge the Traditional Owners and their custodianship of the lands on which we meet today. 

And I would like to pay my respects to their ancestors and their descendants – as we walk together on the path to Reconciliation. 

I would also like to formally acknowledge …

  • Helen Sinclair, Chair of Duchesne College Council
  • Michelle Allan, Principal of the College
  • Lana Duffy, President of the Student Club
  • My colleagues from UQ
  • Councillors, College staff and students.

Thank you for the kind invitation to join you for this important occasion.

It’s wonderful to see that Duchesne celebrates outstanding academic achievement in this way.


I understand that about half of you, here, this evening, are in your first year of university – and, therefore, new residents of this College.

So I want to begin by addressing some welcoming comments directly to you.

I want to ask you to take a moment and just reflect on how you felt the very first time you walked through these doors – a couple of weeks ago. 

Were you nervous? Anxious? Intimidated?

Speaking as someone with an academic background in psychology, I want to assure you that that kind of feeling is a completely natural response to change.

And it’s especially normal for people to feel anxious about moving to a new home – and adapting to a new environment.

Now that you’ve considered those feelings, I want to ask you to compare it to how you feel, here and now – in this moment.

Just reflect on how far you’ve come over this past fortnight.

Let me assure you that the growing sense of familiarity and friendship that you feel here at Duchesne … has only just begun.
Before long, this College will truly feel like home. 

And your fellow residents will be as familiar to you as your own family.

So, when you talk of the characteristics of Sacred Heart leadership, please recognise that you’re already building that foundation of “courage and confidence”.

And those two traits will be invaluable to you – both, here at university, and in your life beyond.


I’ve no doubt that Michelle, and the team here, have already welcomed you – and helped guide you through this settling in period.

And I’d like to broaden that greeting, by welcoming you to this University – and to Brisbane.

I’m conscious that there are a number of you who are travelling from Duchesne to study further afield – at QUT, Griffith University and ACU.

I want to welcome you to our wider UQ community, too.

Undoubtedly, you will make good friends, here, at Duchesne, who are studying at UQ – so I want you to feel like our St Lucia campus is a welcoming place for you, too.


The focus of this evening is quite rightly on welcoming the new residents – as well as celebrating the academic achievements of the more senior residents. 

However, I thought I might use this opportunity to share a little bit about my background and my journey as a leader.

Throughout my career, I’ve always found it helpful to listen to the stories – and the career experiences – of my older colleagues.

So, I hope that my personal experience adds some new perspective for you, especially for those among you who are starting to consider your next steps after Duchesne College.


I was born in Western Australia and spent my formative years in Canberra in the 1970s.

Like you, I had a residential experience. 

Mine was as a boarder at Girls Grammar in Canberra.  

Apart from some abiding memories about the heating and dining arrangements, I count myself very lucky to have had this opportunity.

Indeed, I was raised and educated in an environment that was always encouraging – and I never felt like my ambitions were being curtailed, in any way.


Looking back, I now recognise that I was fascinated by the complexity of human behaviour from a very early age.

So, from my earliest days of studying psychology at ANU, I knew that I had found my place in the world.

Like all young people, I thought anything and everything was possible.

It wasn’t until I was close to finishing my PhD that I was first exposed to some of the impediments that we know still hamper the careers of so many young women.

I was entering the final year of my PhD and expecting my first baby.

I can vividly recall telling my supervisor about my pregnancy.

As someone who I regarded as being reasonably open-minded and forward thinking, I was expecting him to have a positive response to this news.

But, instead, he looked completely stunned and then he was speechless for a long time.  

Eventually he said: “You’ll never make it in academia – it’s impossible.” 

And I was completely floored by his response. 

Throughout the rest of my pregnancy, it was an issue that he never mentioned again.


My story is by no means special or different to most other women.

Countless women interrupt, stall or reorientate their careers to have children or to take care of their family responsibilities.

But as I reflect on that incident, with the benefit of time and perspective, I realise that he helped me. 

I’ve always been the kind of person who responds to a challenge – and he certainly gave me one.  

It meant that I never assumed that the next step in my career would be easy or automatic – especially as a female.

After spending the first decade of my career teaching and researching in psychology at UQ, I moved into leadership roles with increasing responsibility. 

First within my Faculty and, then, within the broader University context.

In a sense, as a woman, I think I was required to demonstrate my capability across a broad range of portfolios, perhaps more than my male counterparts might have been.

However, it meant that I gained a breadth of experience that really prepared me well for more senior leadership roles.

My leadership journey has been very much about drawing on my own reserves of courage and confidence. 

It’s been a case of seizing new opportunities as they have arisen, and not being afraid of the potential risks or threats that always come with taking that next step.  

In 2014, after 24 years here at UQ, I accepted a role on the other side of the country – as Vice-Chancellor at Curtin University in Perth.

After six-and-a-half years in WA, my career journey led me back to UQ in August, last year, to resume a career that started here 30 years ago.

Over the past three decades, views like the one my supervisor expressed to me have largely disappeared – but, of course, not entirely. 


There are a few points I would like to make here.

The first is that the paths women take to leadership are not as direct or as straightforward as they are for men. 

But that doesn’t mean that young women shouldn’t aim high. 

You need to have confidence in order to make it.  

You need to back yourself, and your abilities.

But, as a leader, you’re also going to be confronted, every day, with really tough decisions that affect the lives of other people.

That requires courage.

Courage is a quality that’s often overlooked, or misunderstood.

People see it quite simply as being plucky, bold or audacious.

But there is a whole other side of courage that’s about having moral courage.

It’s about doing what one ought to do – even when it’s difficult.

So, when you’re faced with a difficult choice, always ask yourself: 

“What’s the right thing to do?”

Every time you act in response to that question, you’re showing moral courage and true leadership.

I’ve always found that simple question – “What’s the right thing to do?” – as the best way of tapping into my values and my principles.

It helps me to quickly find my “true north” in a lot of my decision making.


The second point I want to make is that women sometimes fall into the trap of thinking we have to be perfect at everything, to embody the ‘super woman’.

Part of the reason for this is the alluring yet deceptive picture of the perfect work-life balance that ‘successful’ women supposedly achieve. 

I fear that too many women in high-profile jobs are saying in public that having it all is fantastic, while in private they’re falling on the floor with exhaustion.

So, please don’t be fooled by the carefully curated lives of your peers that are splashed across Instagram.

We live complex lives and are unlikely to excel at everything or to be happy all the time.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama said recently, “I don’t want young women out there to have the expectation that if they’re not ‘having it all’ that somehow they’re failing.”

I agree.  Sometimes just muddling along takes super-human effort.  

So, have compassion for yourself.

As a mother, I came to understand that my failure to send perfect home-baked cakes to school events did not make me a complete failure.

In fact, I often found it challenging to make it to my children’s school assemblies, sporting events and graduations.

But having compassion means acknowledging the truth about these things.

And it also means not projecting a false image of invincibility that leaves everyone else feeling like they are under-performing.


Finally, I encourage you all to take control of your own careers and to be agents of change in the process.

Over the course of your careers, make sure you examine the policies and approaches of prospective employers before you join them. 

For instance: 

  • investigate their equal opportunity record 
  • explore the programs they offer for mentoring young and mid-career staff, and 
  • examine what work/family policies they have in place.

You might be pleasantly surprised.

Employers are increasingly recognising that recruiting and retaining talented women makes companies more innovative, improves corporate decision-making, and boosts productivity.

And I hope you don’t find it too forward a suggestion, but I’d also encourage you to apply the same kind of thinking in your personal lives when you consider prospective partners. 

I think you stand a better chance of personal and professional success if your partner values your career as much as his or her own.


As leaders of the future, I urge you to surround yourself with people who complement you and who challenge you to think differently.

Relish the opportunities that come your way.

Then, when those opportunities do come, show confidence in your abilities and courage in your convictions. 

And, above all, be compassionate – not only to others, but to yourselves.  

I wish you all the very best for your life here at Duchesne – and at university.

I hope that it is all that you wished for – and much, much more.

Thank you.