Natasha Stott Despoja

My University experience encouraged me to be a global citizen and gave me the skills to try and make the world a better place
Natasha Stott Despoja

I headed to the University of Adelaide at the height of debates around the reintroduction of fees for higher education. 1987 saw the Higher Education Administration Charge (HEAC) and 1988 was the start of HECS with Generation X as the guinea pig. I came with purpose: arguing passionately that education should be publicly funded and accessible to all. The first group I joined was Women on Campus which gave me an avenue for the feminism imbued in me since childhood. Rallies and meetings, making posters and distributing free sanitary products developed camaraderie and activism.

I’d always believed university should be an holistic experience and for me it was. From hosting a student radio program (Kathy and I brought you The Blue Stocking Show and later, a late-night music program which meant I could play Jesus and Mary Chain to my heart’s content) to writing for On Dit, debating, running in student elections, enjoying the best of Uni theatre (Footlights!) and watching and judging Battle of the Bands!

The bar was often a haven, but so were the Cloisters for fun and activities, even hosting an Austudy wedding. For quiet times I hid in that beautiful library.

My passion for politics grew at university. My first election was for the now-defunct Bread and Circuses broadsheet, it was going to be my literary expression equivalent of the TV show The D Generation. Sadly, it was not to be. Despite my friend Andrew Rosser and I running on a convincing platform of “Vote for Nat and Andy”, complete with an image by the famous cartoonist, the late Michael Atchison, our opponents ran with “Vote for Fat and Randy” and won.

Natasha Stott Despoja

My more serious student representative forays included serving as Women’s Officer, a Union Board member and as the President of the Students’ Association (acronym SAUA, pronounced sewer). I was proud to reintroduce Blue Stocking Week, a chance to acknowledge trailblazing academic women and highlight the needs of women on campus. Although, the day the city woke to find the University’s and North Terrace’s statues of famous men covered in blue stockings did result in a stern warning. A bit like the time I sent sardine tins to members of the University executive to remind them about overcrowding in lecture theatres.

My tenure as President saw some challenging and tragic times. Attempts by the state government to withdraw student transport concessions saw thousands take to the streets in one of the biggest rallies since the Vietnam war, at a time when student activism was considered to be waning. We won that battle and students still get transport concessions today.

Against the backdrop of the war in Iraq, many students expected their Association to be active and outspoken. There was a statewide debate about sexism in university colleges, and I remember also handling a request from then Women’s Officer Annabel Crabb to shut down an Orientation Week stall that displayed fake foetuses to protest against abortion. But it was the murder of 18-year-old student Allison Nitschke that I, and others, will never forget, and which propelled my work in the prevention of violence against women.

Academia was not absent from my thoughts: the intellectual challenge of Ethics IHB or the vibrant discussions around class and feminism, or Machiavelli to MAD with tutors like Carol Bacchii, Carol Johnson, Tom Playford and Jenny Stock were legendary. My degree helped hone critical thinking and analysis, and a range of political, English and history texts gave me insight into different ideas and ideologies. They fuelled my desire to work in human rights, possibly law, or behind the scenes in politics. I loved the intellectual rigor of study, even if I didn’t always meet my deadlines! Guest lecturers, such as the first female leader of a national political party Senator Janine Haines, were inspirational and challenged us all.

I had little money while at university, so casual work, Austudy and a share house made life possible, but I know how many people still miss out because of ever-climbing fees and charges. It is why I am passionate about providing a scholarship. It is also why I will never resile from my belief that higher education should be government-funded, so no one misses out.

Unsurprisingly, this was the gist of my graduation speech as President, Tradition Meets Progress, at which I graduated, carried the Mace and sat with His Honour Samuel Jacobs.

My association with the University is never far away:  as an alumna, Honorary Research Fellow and someone grateful every day for the high-quality education and the lifelong friends and colleagues.

My university experience encouraged me to be a global citizen and gave me the skills to try and make the world a better place.

Natasha Stott Despoja AO graduated with a BA in 1991 and became a Doctor of the University (honoris causa) in 2021. A former Senator, she is still the youngest woman ever to enter Federal Parliament, aged 26, and subsequently became the youngest Federal party political leader. In 2020 she was elected to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, and in March this year she was appointed as SA’s Royal Commissioner into Domestic, Family and Sexual Violence.

Images supplied: Natasha on the Uni footbridge with (now Dr) Kathy Edwards, highlighting security issues for women on campus circa 1987; graduation day 1991, as Mace Bearer, with her mother Shirley Stott Despoja OAM and the Hon. Samuel Jacobs AO QC.

Tagged in Profiles, Lumen Autumn 2024