Graduation address: Ed McAlister

Monday, 4 August 2003

Firstly, allow me to thank the Vice-Chancellor, Professor McWha, for his invitation to address you at this Graduation Ceremony. I am very pleased and honoured to have been approached and was delighted to accept.

I am particularly pleased that I have been asked to address the students graduating from these particular faculties. This is because my own background is in science and I have two daughters, one who has graduated in the health science area and another who has obtained a PhD in science.

Secondly, and more importantly, allow me to congratulate you on your success, today is the culmination of years of hard work. However, the credit is not yours alone. Credit must go to your support network. I refer not only to the members of the teaching staff of the University, who have guided your footsteps and your thought processes. I refer to your support outside the campus, to your parents, to your wives, husbands, partners, children and all the rest of your extended family. You could not have done it without this support. In many cases this support may have come at a cost, both financial and personal. This day is not just yours to enjoy, it is a day for family pride and you will enjoy it all the more for that reason.

I well remember my own graduation day, when I graduated as a mature student. I remember feeling that, now I had my degree I had some knowledge, but there was still so much that I didn't know; hopefully I would learn the rest as I advanced my career. I also remember the pride and joy on the faces of my wife and daughters and the many friends who came to help me celebrate, what for me, as a part-time student, was the culmination of years of effort. I still thank them today.

Whether your degree is what the University terms an "Ordinary" degree, I prefer the term degree, or if it must be qualified, primary degree, or Honours degree, Masters or Doctorate, you have the potential to make a great contribution to society. You are also going out into the workforce at a time of great change. However, you should not be afraid of change, even though the rate of change is increasing. It will bring great challenges and it will bring great opportunities. You should accept the fact that, in the words of the pop group, Atomic Kitten, there is "always change - nothing stays the same". Many of you will end up in jobs and professions which have not yet even been invented.

Unlike the time I started work, more than forty years ago, there are no "jobs for life", contract positions have become the way of the world. Most of you will have numerous career changes in your life. When I started my working career, employers were suspicious of people who moved around, today's employers anticipate and expect potential employees to have had a number of jobs and to have gained experience from each one. While on this point about your career, I offer you some advice, the thrust of which might seem strange on your Graduation Day. If you find yourself in the wrong job, or a job you hate, accept this and change jobs. Above all, you must be happy in what you are doing if you are to contribute to the best of your ability. I changed jobs at the age of 49, with some trepidation, but for me it has been the best thing I ever did.

Not only will change be imposed upon you by external forces, I hope that you will drive some of that change. This should not simply be "change for changes sake", often referred to as "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic"; one must not carelessly discard the good things from the past, there should be good reasons for making changes. Most progress has come from people who were not content to accept the status quo or mediocrity, but were driven by a desire to improve things and offer a better way of doing something, often for the betterment of society.

You are the generation which will face the fact that we are certainly now citizens of the world, even though we live in the bottom part of the Southern Hemisphere. The recent SARS epidemic brought this home to us. Should such a thing happen again, those of you in the Health Science area will need to fall back on your training and retain your objectivity and make decisions free of subjectivity - use the scientific method.

Those of you in the faculty of science may find yourselves embroiled in discussions surrounding radioactive waste dumps or the use of science to genetically manipulate the food we eat or manipulate plants which will allow us to deliver vaccines orally to people in developing countries. This is the stuff of science fiction only a few short decades ago, but is something with which you will have to grapple. Be objective and use the scientific method.

As I said, grasp the opportunities which change brings to you. You will have noticed from my CV that my background in the biological sciences is predominantly in Botany. The very idea that I would be running not just one zoo, but two, was laughable less than fifteen years ago. Yet here I am today, doing just that, and have achieved most of my success and recognition from the 'Zoo World'.

The role of zoos has changed. It has changed from being simply a stamp collection to being institutions with important conservation and education ideals and responsibilities. Time does not permit me to develop this theme, nor is it appropriate for today's ceremony. Suffice to say that this change has come both from within and without the zoo profession. More and more species are being driven towards extinction, mostly as a result of burgeoning population, and zoos have joined forces with government and non-government agencies to reverse, or at least stop the decline. Public perception and requirements have also assisted in this transition process. This change has been welcomed and has had a positive effect upon the lives of the animals we hold in trust.

As I approach the end of this address, I wish to leave you with a quote. This quote comes from a book called "The Prophet" which was written in 1923 by a Lebanese writer, poet and artist, Kahlil Gilbran and concerns teaching:

"No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge.

The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness.

If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.

The astronomer may speak to you of his understanding of space, but he cannot give you his understanding.

The musician may sing to you of the rhythm which is in all space, but he cannot give you the ear which arrests the rhythm, nor the voice that echoes it.

And he who is versed in the science of numbers can tell of the regions of weight and measure, but he cannot conduct you thither.

For the vision of one man lends not its wings to another man."

Some of you, whether you know it or not today, will end up in the teaching profession, either at the secondary or tertiary level. Others will end up teaching others, perhaps by example, or perhaps as a part of staff development, at the work site. You should remember this quote and your responsibilities in this area.

All of you should realise and remember that the teaching you have received, while it will have imparted a certain amount of knowledge to you, is more important in that it has opened up a new world to you, it has taught you to think critically and scientifically. The teaching you have received has given you the tools, you should use these tools extensively, keep them sharp and continue to learn, only by doing this can you stay current and develop your full potential. As my grandfather said to me fifty years ago, "Education is easy carried". Remember this and continue to learn for the rest of your life. Experience does have a great deal going for it.

And finally: I stated early in this address that you owed your success thus far to the support of family. As you go through life, you will find, as I have done, that you can do little in life without the support of others. You will need the support of staff, many of whom will not have degrees, but be in the technical or support services area. Their help will be invaluable. You will need the support of colleagues, friends and family, they will be your anchor in the good times and the bad. Remember this.

Have a life outside your career. Enjoy the arts, culture, music, travelling or whatever is your interest. Use your skills to contribute to the community outside your work, this will brings its own satisfaction. If you do all of these things, you will become a more "rounded" and better person. You will benefit greatly from these experiences and you will return to your job each day refreshed and recharged, more able to achieve your full potential and thereby increase your contribution to society.

Once again, I congratulate you and I wish you well for the future.

E J McALISTER, AO
CHIEF EXECUTIVE
Royal Zoological Society of SA Inc

 

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