Thank you so much for the opportunity and privilege to join you today. It feels like a privilege to speak because we’re at the beginning of something that I am sure will be special to each and every one of you.
Now my first memory of Otago was attending Science Summer School as a teenager. My second, was for the University’s Easter tournament where I came as a debating adjudicator. Neither of these things makes me sound like I had any friends as a young person.
Don’t underestimate debaters. They’re the only sports team I know in Dunedin that was banned from the local pubs.
That means it doesn’t seem like all that long ago that I was sitting where you are now as a new student, not here but elsewhere.
That perhaps gives me a little bit of an insight into what is running through your minds right now. And I know, that one of those thoughts is “I hope that the guest speaker is brief.” I promise, once I’m about 10 minutes in, the last 40 minutes of my political lecture will just really fly by.
But, having sat where you are now, I also have the benefit of hindsight. So I’d like to share with you a few brief reflections.
Firstly, don’t underestimate the power behind the fact you are here in the first place. Your decision to keep investing in yourself is hugely important. And I don’t merely say that as someone who wants to encourage well educated and well paid tax payers. I say it because your world is changing. And it’s changing fast.
In a few years’ time you will step into a place where more than 40% of jobs right here in NZ will change; they’ll be replaced or they’ll disappear altogether because of technological developments. We can either be frightened by that, or we can prepare for it.
We cannot predict what the world will look like, what jobs will exist, or what future to pursue, but we can make sure you’re as prepared as you can be. That’s why we, the government did our bit, and made the first year of your study absolutely free.
The rational for that was simple. We know that if we invest in you, and your future, we all benefit. Education is a public good. That’s why you are the first group to be a part of what I hope will become a radically different education system over the next decade. One that is ultimately more accessible for all New Zealanders.
But that’s what we could do, whether you took up the opportunity was up to you. And you aren’t alone. So far there have at least been 290,447 visitors to the feesfree.govt.nz website (as at 14 Feb). Now it’s too early to know how that will translate into attendance, but what I hope it does do is turn around the declining roles we’ve seen throughout our education faculties and facilities in New Zealand. I certainly hope it does.
But deciding to further your education is one thing, the fact you chose here is significant too. I remember angsting over the seemingly simple decision over where to study, many years ago. I briefly contemplated travelling overseas to study, but it terrified me. I worried whether I would be good enough for tertiary education, let alone in another country. In the end I did travel – a whole 25kms from Morrinsville to Waikato University.
Many of you will have come from much, much further than that. You weighed up all of your options. You saw the educational opportunities that could be provided here, and you took the plunge, no matter how unfamiliar this environment may have seemed. You should feel proud of that.
It took me two years to get up the courage to travel beyond my own back yard for my education. Half way through my degree I took up the chance to travel to the United States to finish my degree at Airzona State University. It was terrifying. The campus had 15,000 people. It was three times the size of the town that I had grown up in. It was large, hot and sprawling. In fact, to avoid the heat lecturers would travel in golf buggies between classes. A fact I found amusing right up until I saw someone bowled over by a lecturer in his golf buggy, who was clearly having a very bad day.
I got lost. Constantly. I had to take two buses to get to campus, and on days when I missed them I would stupidly walk in the terrible heat and be honked at all the way. People in Arizona do not walk, I found out.
My overwhelming memory from that short time away, studying in a place that was not my home, was that heat stroke was awful, and that I was lonely.
I often wished that I was at home with everything that was familiar, and with everyone that I loved, and I especially felt that when 9/11 came and everything in the world felt just a little more upside down. But I stuck it out.
Your experiences will be your own, and probably quite different to mine. You’re more likely for instance to experience hypothermia than heat stroke. But I have no doubt that while you will have experienced challenges, you will have come through a period of your life that will be formative, and important.
But deciding to come here has only just been the beginning. The long period of study comes next. It will take perseverance, motivation, and it will take this other small gem, confidence.
I don’t say that lightly. So many young people who I cross paths with in my job are so hugely talented, but don’t see the skills and possibility that lies within them.
I remember asking a group of students one day what they hoped they would do when they left education. If they could do absolutely anything. I then asked them what they thought they would do. One girl put up her hand. “I would like to be a doctor.” She would have been about 16, and her face lit up when she talked about the prospect of a career in medicine. But I asked her one more question. “What do you think you will do?” Without missing a beat she answered, “I’ll probably work in travel”. My heart broke a little. “Why don’t you think you’ll be a doctor?” I asked. “Because someone else will be better at that,” she said.
This young woman hadn’t even finished high school and she had already talked herself out of her future.
Just imagine if the scientist who discovered penicillin thought someone else would be better, where would we be? Or if Peter Beck though that rockets were only something Americans made and were out of reach for a boy from Invercargill?
Now of course, confidence may not be an issue for you. You may well be one of the lucky ones who had a plan A and that was as far in the alphabet as you ever felt the need to go. If that’s not you, if you’re one of the many who is plagued with self-doubt from time to time – then this is your opportunity to work on a little sense of self-belief. Because we can provide you access to university, your lecturers can teach you all you need to know, but only you can convince yourself of how far all of that can possibly take you.
I feel like I have a little bit of experience in this regard. Roughly 20 years ago when I was sitting where you are, you might assume I was about to embark on a degree in politics, with some assurance about where I was going to go. That I was confident that I was on a path perhaps to be an MP, or at least work in politics. That I had a plan. You would be wrong.
I was Mormon, I lived in Morrinsville, and while I loved politics, I never ever dreamed I would work in it. I had settled on a programme of study, not out of passion but out of a fear that I would have invested a huge amount in education and might leave without the ability to pay my rent. That’s what happens when you’re one of the first in your family to go to university. You worry. I hoped that I might work in an organisation on communication issues, with perhaps a bit of voluntary political work on the side. Why? Simple. I didn’t think I could do anything more.
I heard someone once say “the difference between what we are, and what we could be, is the greatest waste.” And even though there are many things you’ll probably consider a waste, O Week without a toga party perhaps, wasted potential is definitely one of them.
But over the years, I have become absolutely convinced that the difference between what we are, and what we could be, is more often than not – ourselves.
Most challenges can be overcome, but the voice that says you’re not good enough, or that you can’t do it, is often the loudest and most overwhelming. I am here today not to tell you that you will somehow learn to be confident through daily inspo and memes. Instead, I want to tell you that you may never rid yourself of that voice, but you can learn to ignore it. In fact, a whole group of people you admire and respect have probably taught themselves to do just that.
Right now though you may be sitting there wondering how this is relevant to you when you have three, four, maybe five years of carefree living before you have to bother with notions of leadership and career progression. You may ask yourself why I would worry about all of things I am talking about at the beginning of your education? Simple. Because we need you.
Yours will be the generation that we need to help us take on some of our greatest challenges. Climate change, and the need to transition to an economy that doesn’t treat our resources as endless – including our environment. A growing social deficit, like high levels of inequality and child poverty. And then there are the challenges that strike regardless of whether we are prepared or warned, from national disasters, antibiotic resistance, through to bio security issues – this is the list of things that keep me up at night. And that is why we need you. It is why we need your education, and it is why we need your confidence.
In return, I can tell you that I will make sure we take the same approach with the way govern your country – with confidence. With ambition. With bold plans like making new Zealand the best place in the world to be a child, where we are clean green and carbon neutral, where everyone is earning, learning, caring or volunteering. Where we don’t just generate wealth but we worry about how evenly and fairly our wealth is shared too, and where everyone can expect to have a home that is warm and is dry – including students in Dunedin.
We will be confident, we will be ambitious, we will be driven by values that say we can and should be better – and all I ask is that you do the same.
But for now, please, enjoy this period in your life. Feel proud that you are here, but also hold onto your optimism and hope about what the future could look like for you and for the country you are lucky enough to call home. I know I will.