Ten things you should know when you graduate
The following is taken from a speech given by Professor Alice Brown, chair of the Scottish Funding Council, to students Edinburgh College Graduation on 28 September 2017. Professor Brown studied at Stevenson College – one of the colleges that became Edinburgh College – and came full circle by making her final public appearance at our Graduation.
I am often asked to speak about my career, which is a bit embarrassing as I have to confess that, in some respects, I am not a very good role model.
I started work at the age of 15 as a shorthand typist with an insurance company. All the women had to wear a blue nylon overall buttoned from the neck down so as “not to distract the men from their work”! They also had a policy not to employ married women. When I decided to get married I left and went to work as a secretary for a firm of surveyors who, happily, did not have the same objection. During this period I had my two children. I then made the decision to return to part-time study at college in my mid-30s.
College gave me the necessary Highers to go to the University of Edinburgh. My first day at university did not go well – I felt totally intimidated and out of my depth. However, I overcame my initial nerves and graduated in 1983. Since then, I have been incredibly fortunate and opportunities have opened up in often very surprising ways.
My PhD set me on a path to a career in higher education that culminated in being awarded my own personal chair and later in being appointed as a vice principal a
t the University of Edinburgh – the first woman in this role.
I was fortunate to be interested in Scottish politics and equal opportunities at a time of significant constitutional change in Scotland. Little did I know when I embarked on my degree that I would later be invited by the late Donald Dewar, Scotland’s first first minister, to be a member of the group that was asked to design the procedures for a new Scottish Parliament.
When I left the University of Edinburgh in 2002 I applied for and was appointed as Scotland’s first public services ombudsman. This role gave me a unique insight into all areas of public life, including the health service, local authorities and housing associations, and what needs to be done to improve the delivery of public services. But I also learned a valuable lesson about treating other people the way in which you would like to be treated yourself.
I retired from this role and full-time employment eight years ago, but found it difficult to say no when other opportunities arose. For example, I was elected as the first woman to be general secretary of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. And four years ago I was appointed as the first woman to be chair of the Scottish Funding Council (SFC).
It has been a great privilege to be the chair of SFC and, in spite of many challenges on the way, I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It has given me the chance to speak at graduations like this and to work with so many talented and committed people in our colleges and universities. I was extremely touched, therefore, when I was recently awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Herald’s Higher Education Awards. That is when you know you are getting really old! However, it is a special honour to get such an award from your peers.
Reflecting on my career and the lessons I have learned, what advice would I give you in taking your next steps?
1. It will involve working hard – you will have learned this already from your success in completing your studies. I expect that, like me, there were many times you thought it would be easier just to give up.
2. You will encounter setbacks and disappointments but it is how you respond to these that it is important and how you build your resilience and determination to carry on.
3. Learning from your mistakes is important, but it is important also not be inhibited by them.
4. Life is constantly changing, as is the world of work, so embrace change and be adaptable and flexible and open to new ideas and ways of working.
5. Don’t wait to be asked to try something new. Be prepared to step out of your comfort zone and take risks. You can often surprise yourself when you do.
6. Try to do the best job you can in whatever role you have. For me it matters less what level of job you have but what you do and achieve in the role.
7. Treat people the way you would want you or your family to be treated and with mutual respect. I certainly learned that lesson when I was the ombudsman.
8. Thank those who have helped you during your studies and career and support and encourage others when you are in a position to do so, i.e. if you get to the top, don’t kick the ladder away.
9. Do not take yourself too seriously and maintain a good sense of humour. I have found that I certainly needed that over the years.
10. And finally, please remember to use what you have learned here at Edinburgh College and be confident, ambitious and positive in seizing all the chances and opportunities that will lie ahead. In your own way, you can make a difference and I hope you will be inspired to help change the world for the better – it is certainly in need of such change.