Embrace the learning

11 December 2019

This week Karlie Noon graduates with a master's in astrophysics. In the first student speech at the inaugural ANU Grand Graduation, she says students should embrace learning in all its stages --  excitement, experimenting, failures, vulnerabilities and successes. 

Yaama ngindaayuu, good morning everyone. As a proud sovereign Gomeroi yinarr, I acknowledge that we meet today on the beautiful lands of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people and pay my respects to their elders who have kept their culture and traditions alive. I also extend this acknowledgement to all First Nations people here today.

Firstly, I would like to thank the ANU team for inviting me to speak at the first ever Graduation Picnic, a new tradition I'm sure will bring feelings of great joy to our graduates, as oppose to feelings of boredom generated by the lengthy and dull ceremonies of the past. 

When I was 13, I left school. For my whole life, I felt that school was never a safe place for me. I would frequently get in trouble for not having the right uniform, even though we couldn't afford it and I had very low expectations put on me, so got bored a lot being in the low classes. I did not feel like I belonged. So I left, resigned to low expectations.

I went to TAFE where I had much greater control over what I was learning. This changed everything for me. I realized how much I truly enjoyed learning and leaving school turned out to be the start of my true educational journey.

One that has led me here, 15 years later, to being the first Aboriginal person in New South Wales to obtain a double degree in maths and physics and the first Aboriginal person to complete a Masters in astronomy and astrophysics from ANU. I may have left school at the age of 13 but clearly my learning did not stop there.

So how did I get from a self-identifying emo, teenage high school dropout to obtaining a Masters degree in Astrophysics?

It might sound cliche but the simple truth is...I embraced the learning journey. But what is it? Well, it starts with something important, something that can drive your curiosity and passion. For me, I had to be learning something that was much bigger than myself.

This started for me way back in primary school. A Gomeroi Aunty would spend afternoons teaching me maths. But also teaching me how to enjoy maths. At TAFE I discovered how exciting learning can be however, I also realized in order to do the harder maths, I had to go back to school....so that is what I did.

I re-entered school in year 10 and it was completely different to before. I still had challenges but I stuck around and kept working at it, knowing that obtaining an ATAR was important for my future.

Going into uni, I spent about a year trying out a bunch of different pathways, I was experimenting, discovering what I liked, what I was good at and what I needed to keep developing....another vital step.

It wasn't long before I stumbled back into maths after a huge lightbulb moment. It came to me as I was writing a philosophy essay on the origin of the universe. In my research, I discovered the incredible world of physics and cosmology. A discovery that would change my life.

You see, I had never been exposed to physics before. I was 19 and in my first year of uni. My mind was blown. The idea that there is a whole field that tries to understand the universe, and you could study that at university? Like the university I was currently at?  

I was stoked! I filled up my days with teaching myself advanced maths and physics, I read as many textbooks and as much Stephen Hawking that I could get my hands on! Two months after that essay, I was enrolled into a combined bachelor of maths, bachelor of science.

In my first year... I failed....three times. I was heartbroken. I felt like I had let myself down, until I realized, this was all a part of the journey. I might have failed the course, or three of them, but I definitely did not fail at learning. Each semester, I knew much more than the one before and I was grateful for that.

This gave me the confidence to keep going. By my fourth semester, I was passing everything and by my final semester, I had 5 high distinctions under my belt. If I could identify the key thing that fueled me through all the failures is appreciating what I had and what I had already achieved.

Today we are encouraged to value our marks above everything, how we compare to others and the earning potential at the end. We are never taught to value the journey but instead to endure it and just get through till we get the certificate. Educational growth comes at the cost of mental health. But does it need to be this way? What if we could have both?

Five weeks ago, I submitted my Masters thesis that aimed to determine distances to gas clouds, living just outside the Milky Way so, we can constrain how much gas enters our Galaxy.

Before coming here, I had never done research or any astrophysics and as you could imagine, at first I was terrible. I felt like I was back at the start. But rather than let it derail or discourage me, I allowed myself to be terrible.... and to build on it. Being vulnerable and "not knowing" is so important, if we can't accept when we don't know something, how can we learn and improve?

Everyone expected me to be frantic towards the end. People would come up to me and say 'are you okay?' as if someone close to me had died. And very time, I answered 'yeah, I am good'. I truly meant it.

Even though it was hard, I was in the midst of the most stimulating and exciting learning of my life, and there is nothing more motivating than that. I submitted 99 pages of original research. For which, I received a high distinction. Obtaining this Masters degree is one of my proudest achievements.

Not only did I learn the foundations of being a researcher and the field of astronomy, but I did it choosing not to sacrifice all of myself. I looked after myself, I stayed open and optimistic, I kept in touch with my friends and I didn't lose my perspective of "embracing the learning". Not sacrificing myself has allowed me to learn, sustainably.

Today we are all going into our next chapters and getting ready to apply our knowledge in the outside world. If there's anything I want you to take from my journey, is that you embrace learning, through all of its stages of excitement, experimenting, failures, vulnerabilities and successes and that you do it sustainably so that you can continue the learning journey for the rest of your life. Thank you.