Hu remembers well the pressures and contradictions that come with leaving school. As a professor and associate dean of Western Sydney University’s medical school, she still observes them in students coming through the ranks of medicine each year.
“We ask them to compete so hard to get into university, and then you go to university, and you’re told ‘you should just learn for the love of it’. It’s hard to get rid of those habits,” she says. “But if I have any advice for this new generation, it would be to resist the urge to compare yourself endlessly with others.”
She says she’s been “amazed” by the resilience young people have shown this year. “My final word is really just, congratulations. The HSC is always stressful and you’ve survived perhaps the most challenging year we’ve seen in generations.”
40 years on (1980)
When Supreme Court Justice Guy Parker was selecting university subjects back in 1980, his head teacher at Cranbrook School told him to choose subjects that complemented each other. The advice was, there was no point doing science and law together.
“So I thought: well, I’m going to do science and law together,” Parker says. “I had no idea what I wanted to do, so I thought I’d keep my options as wide as I could.”
Parker was appointed a judge of the NSW Supreme Court three years ago, and was a computer programmer in London decades before that, but did not see that path coming as a teenager.
“Before the HSC you haven’t got enough imagination,” Parker says. He came fifth in the state but his results didn’t point him in any particular direction. “My best subject in school was French, and my worst was English – [now] I’ve turned out to be somebody who works with words,” he says.
“Just because you’ve enjoyed and are good at something at a school level, doesn’t mean that’s going to continue. And [the same is true if you] haven’t necessarily enjoyed something.”
Parker was gallivanting around Europe with friends when HSC results were released. It was a pleasant confidence boost when news eventually reached him via telegram, but he was quickly humbled when sitting in his first science tutorial.
“I was in the same classes with people who had done even better than I’d done; I couldn’t believe how much smarter they were than I was,” he says. “You realise there’s so many other ways to get to where you want to be and marks do not define you.”
Still, he believes the post-school period is sacred and encourages students to revel in it. “Stop, pause, and reflect so you can recharge your batteries,” he says.
Michael Kilborn from Tamworth’s Farrer Memorial Agricultural High School came eighth in the state that year. He was also tempted by a science and law degree.
“But my grandmother reckoned I should do medicine. I wasn’t sure but I decided at the last minute that Science/Medicine at UNSW would keep that option open,” he says.
It was a sliding doors moment – he dashed to the Tamworth post office to send a telegram changing his university preferences the night before preferences closed.
That sprint paid off: Kilborn is now a specialist cardiologist and electrophysiologist at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. It follows an illustrious 10-year university career; he won the Rhodes Scholarship in 1985 and completed his medicine degree and PHD at Oxford University.
It hasn’t been all medicine – a simultaneous cricket career stands out as a highlight of his Oxford years. Kilborn played first-class cricket for Oxford, turning out at London’s famed Lord’s cricket ground and batting against New Zealand, Pakistan and the West Indies.
One small regrets is rushing towards his medical career. “I gave up on the opportunity to go on a cricket tour to Southern Africa, a once in a lifetime opportunity, because I wanted to get on with my career,” he says.
But he has been patient most of the time. “It was certainly a long journey, to get to a stable specialist job. I guess I’m at the ‘peak’ of my career and I love what modern medical techniques can do for people. But I’m also glad that I enjoyed the long journey to get there,” he says.
Kilborn’s advice is to never stop learning: “Whether from uni or TAFE, bosses at work, mentors wherever you might encounter them, reading, meeting new people and approaching the world with a discerning open mind.”
30 years on (1990)
Kate Fagan swept the honours list when she came second in the state in 1990. She topped NSW in three-unit mathematics, modern history and agriculture, and came third in three-unit English. “I am so, so happy,” a young Fagan told the paper that day. “I think I will do arts/law at Sydney Uni but I really don’t know what areas I want to specialise in.”
She certainly did not think her dream of a career in experimental poetry or folk music would be possible. But today Fagan is a poet and songwriter who has been short-listed for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and The Age’s Book of the Year award. She is also a senior lecturer in literary studies at Western Sydney University.
She remembers feeling elated upon receiving the phone call to say she’d blitzed the HSC. “There was a perception that you would not excel if you chose to study humanities like English and history. I was quietly confident knowing I loved the subjects I’d chosen, but was still surprised about how well I did,” she says.
She feels lucky to have gone to James Ruse, a school “filled with wonderful, talented human beings, who were always encouraged to follow their passions”. Following those passions hasn’t always been straightforward, however.
Fagan always wanted to be a creative writer but didn’t think she could make a living that way. She flirted with journalism as a teenager because it seemed the only writing career possible, and as an uncertain 17-year-old studied arts and law. “But I wasn’t interested in becoming a lawyer. I didn’t really understand I’d always wanted to work with literary culture until I was in my third year of university,” she says.
Thirty years later, Fagan hopes young people will stick with things that interest them and surround themselves with good mentors. “Dreams can be slow to realise. There’s always a small spark of curiosity somewhere and the challenge is listening to it,” she says.
Bryan Gaensler from Sydney Grammar School nabbed the fourth spot. The astrophysicist now has two key scientific discoveries to his name: he has pioneered knowledge about how stars die and why the universe is magnetic. He was also Young Australian of the Year in 1999, for his revelations about how stardust gets scattered back into the universe after stars explode.
But nine years earlier, he was fretting he had not performed well in the HSC. The period was one of cramming, panic and ”pulling all-nighters”, Gaensler recalls from Canada, where he now works at the University of Toronto.
So when he arrived home one day to a voicemail from the education department requesting he call them back, he thought something had gone wrong. “That was a bit of a worry,” he says. “I called back – and they told me I had come fourth [in the state] and they would be releasing the names of the top few. That was pretty mind blowing.”
He only had one university preference – the Bachelor of Science at the University of Sydney, which required a score of 60-something – so his high score was “icing on the cake”.
Gaensler was at Sydney for eight years, finishing a bachelor’s degree, honours’ year and PHD, but his passion for astronomy had been with him since he was four-years-old. “I always wanted to be the first person who ever figured something out and to be able to tell everybody else about it,” he says. “I think four-year-old me would be pretty stoked.”
But he knows most people don’t turn four knowing what they want to do with their lives. This year, Gaensler watched his teenage son grapple with the same existential questions most HSC students do while preparing for final exams.
“The message for him and other 17- or 18-year-olds is it’s OK if you don’t know what you want to do. Some people take a very long time to figure it out,” Gaensler says. “You aren’t going to be defined by the choices you make in year 12. It’s more important that in the long run you’re happy and glad with the choices you make. Take your time, a few detours, you’ll get there in the end.”
20 years on (2000)
Helen Daly has taken many detours since the HSC All-Rounder assembly outside state Parliament in 2000. The James Ruse graduate was an aspiring geneticist when interviewed by the Herald that day – now she is a management consultant based in London.
“I think it’s fair to say my career’s been the opposite of linear and I’m obviously a far cry from a geneticist,” she says.
After studying science and law at the University of Sydney, Daly took on a graduate role at a big four accounting firm. She learnt a lot but found her heart wasn’t in it, so she moved into recruitment.
Daly remembers feeling uncertain about changing paths but in the end she says it was simple: it’s never been about where she worked but who she worked with. “It’s more important to surround yourself with smart, motivated people who will challenge you, than [be at] a big name company that looks good on paper,” she says.
After two years in recruitment, Daly spent two years travelling Europe and South America before settling in London in 2013. “Travelling was hugely important for me. I left my safety net of secure, Sydney employment and was suddenly on my own. I developed a lot of resilience,” she says.
She found it difficult to secure a job in London, which was disconcerting at first. “Getting knocked back from jobs wasn’t an experience I’d had before,” she says. “Chucking myself into a pretty unfamiliar place and landing on my feet was a bigger achievement to me than getting good marks or doing well at work.”
Daly worked in a financial role for four years before landing her current job. She regards that variety as a good thing. “I’ve never stopped learning,” she says. “Always remember career paths are cumulative, they don’t have to be linear.”
10 years on (2010)
When Madeleine Gottlieb graduated from Moriah in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, she topped extension 2 English with an ATAR that gained her entry into almost any course. When profiled by the Herald she was described as a literature buff; her favourite authors were Ian McEwan and Truman Capote.
Gottlieb’s passions have stayed true; she is now a writer and director for film and television. But despite high marks, she never finished the arts and law degree she started at university. “I’m unable to commit to anything unless I’m 100 per cent passionate about it, and I wasn’t,” she says.
Instead it was a drag queen trivia night in Sydney’s inner west that set her on her path. A cousin from Los Angeles was in town and Gottlieb’s family took her out for the night. The cousin, it turned out, was a film and television producer for a reputable LA company with contacts at an Australian production company.
Gottlieb started interning there one day a week, joining the set of the ABC’s Cleverman. At that point – about four years into her degree – she made the decision to leave for good.
“The assumption was it was madness to give up something that could be a life made [in law],” she says. “But I just knew I’d be unhappy. I’d found something that made me really excited to go to work every morning.”
She has now worked in the industry for six years, bouncing between production companies and making her own short films. Some of her latest productions have played at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, she’s recently written a feature film and has a television series in the pipeline.
She encourages young people interested in the creative industries to draw on the mentors around them. “It’s not a solo pursuit – it’s meeting the people you connect with on that creative level, holding onto them at all costs and supporting them as much as they support you,” she says. “And make sure there’s always room for passion in your life.”
Natassia is the education reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.
Amelia McGuire is a junior producer at The Sydney Morning Herald.