One month ago I received a very exciting email from the Australian Government stating I had won an inaugural New Colombo Plan Scholarship. Needless to say, it has been a difficult thing to keep secret for the past while, but this week myself and my fellow Griffith University student and scholarship winner, Elliot Jones, headed to Canberra for the awards ceremony and briefings.

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The Australian Governor-General, Peter Cosgrove, Elise Stephenson, and Julie Bishop MP.

A little over four years ago I never thought I would go to university. I had spent my gap year partly in America working on a summer camp, partly recovering from failed bilateral carpal tunnel release surgery on my hands. My hands were so bad I had difficulty with small motor movements – writing and typing were particularly hard, and particularly important for university. Despite this, I had a real interest in Asia and really wanted to attend Griffith University after being offered a place in the Griffith Honours College – an offer so good I felt I could not refuse.

I made a tentative booking with Griffith’s disability services, not really wanting to admit I needed their help, but figuring it would be my only way to see if university would be possible. And it was – the disability services team were incredible – so welcoming and helpful for me and they allayed all my fears. Four years later, I still do my assessment through speech dictation software, Dragon Naturally Speaking, though my hands are gradually improving.

I come from the perspective that if you wallow in pity over what could have been, you’ll never move past where you are. I made a very conscious decision just to keep going regardless of my hands. To distract myself, I took up volunteering and adopted a ‘take all opportunities’ approach. I started volunteering for Griffith’s Student Linx, as an international student mentor, I jumped at the opportunity to be part of the Griffith Business School Student Leadership Program, and I immediately applied to be part of a cohort of Griffith students travelling to Hangzhou, China, for a one month study exchange at the end of my first year (with a bit of volunteering with a fellow student in Hong Kong beforehand).

I’ve been fortunate enough to volunteer for organisations like the McIntyre Centre Riding for Disabled thrift shop in Indooroopilly (once a week, for just over two years now), Micah Projects doing flood recovery work, Launch into Life at Logan doing mentoring, Conservation Volunteers doing environmental work,  Brisbane Powerhouse as a student ambassador for their 2012 World Theatre Festival, the Asian Girl Campaign writing articles on girls’ empowerment in Asia, the Country Women’s Association working at their stall at the Ekka, the National Council of Women of Queensland as a guest speaker and support communications officer, for Impact Youth Social Enterprise Conference as head of marketing doing all the branding, web and logo design, for Girl Guides Queensland as a guest panelist, for Crossroads Foundation in Hong Kong, as a student volunteer in Laos, and for Griffith Enactus – as Vice President of Mental Health First Aid for Youth, Vice President of Mentors in Violence Prevention, senior student leader and volunteer in Cambodia, and speaker at the Enactus National Competition for 2013 and 2014.

I also said yes to every national and international opportunity I could – having now traveled to Japan twice (on an American Field Scholarship, and to attend the International Network of Universities conference in Hiroshima), Taiwan (for the Asia Pacific Cities Summit), China (firstly to undertake study abroad and then to attend the 2013 Emerging Leaders’ Dialogue at Peking University), Malaysia (as part of Griffith’s Muslim World Study Tour, where we met the former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad), Cambodia and Laos (both to volunteer) – as well as Turkey, Spain and Morocco, also part of the Muslim World Study Tour.

There is no doubt that working with these wonderful organisations and being a delegate/representative/student/volunteer in all these locations has fundamentally changed me as a person and made it possible for me to win the New Colombo Plan scholarship.

The awards ceremony took place on Wednesday the 25th of June in Canberra, at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Many diplomats and government and university representatives were present, alongside the Governor-General Peter Cosgrove and the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.  It was an amazing evening I am sure to remember for quite some time to come. Earlier in the day we also had the opportunity to meet the Prime Minister Tony Abbott at Parliament House.

Pro Vice Chancellor (International) Prof Sarah Todd, Elise Stephenson, Elliot Jones, and Griffith University Vice Chancellor Prof Ian O'Connor

Griffith University Pro Vice Chancellor (International) Prof Sarah Todd, Elise Stephenson, Elliot Jones, and Vice Chancellor Prof Ian O’Connor

So what will happen from here? Well, in the next six months I will be completing my Bachelor of Asian Studies and Bachelor of Communication double degree. Next year, I will commence my Bachelor of Government and International Relations with Honours with Griffith University and travel to Hong Kong in June to undertake my New Colombo Plan Scholarship program. I will be researching the topic of women in leadership and power, a topic I am very passionate about and hope to do my future PhD on as well. I also intend to intern at The Women’s Foundation and continue my Mandarin language training while overseas.

Needless to say, all of this would have been impossible without the incredible support (and role-modeling) of my family, the cheering on from my friends, the dedicated help from the Griffith disability services team, the guidance and mentorship from Jeanne, Kim and the staff at Griffith Honours College, the references from Assoc Prof Halim Rane and Kim Holmes, my contacts at Griffith Asia Institute, and, of course, Griffith University in general and the Australian Government for providing the opportunity.  I would also like to thank Prof Ian O’Connor and Prof Sarah Todd for their support on Wednesday evening.

Myself and the 39 other New Colombo Plan Scholars with Governor-General Peter Cosgrove and Julie Bishop MP.

Myself and the 39 other New Colombo Plan Scholars with Governor-General Peter Cosgrove and Julie Bishop MP.

I’m left a little overwhelmed, very honoured, a little nervous, and extremely excited. There are a few great articles here from The Australian and from Griffith University News, but I will leave you with a final quote from my favourite author, Thoreau.

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of [her] dreams, and endeavors to live the life which [she] has imagined, [she] will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” 

Article in The Australian newspaper.

Article in The Australian newspaper.


Griffith University Homepage – and attached story.