The power of education
Devastated by a debilitating hand injury and the pain of losing two loved ones, Murray Rainey found the remedy to his affliction at university.
Murray Rainey sweeps across the Refectory floor at the University of Canberra in ebullient form. He’s brimming with excitement as he sits down for coffee with me.
"I'm pulling the formwork off what I hope will look like a floating concrete vanity top today," Murray says, referring to a personal project he's been working on in addition to the requirements of the industrial design degree he's undertaking at the University. "I wanted to make a concrete sink look like it is floating and I'm about to find out if I've been successful".
Murray is as eager as he is enthusiastic, his emotions clearly palpable. At 56 years of age, he is part of a passionate cohort of baby boomers seeking to better themselves through university. They are what the education sector classifies as mature age students – people studying at university who are over the age of 21.
The definition doesn’t do Murray justice. He’s almost four decades older than some of his peers studying the Bachelor of Design (Industrial Design), but Murray speaks with all the fervour of a school-leaver embarking on a parent free journey into tertiary education. He lists off his favourite subjects and the projects he’s repeated out of pure enjoyment.
“The best project I’ve done to date was when we had to build a beam, a truss and a column, and test them until they broke,” Murray says. “It was a lot of work but it was so much fun. I built one beam and said to myself, ‘I think I can build a better one’, so I built another and tested them both.”
Murray’s zest is infectious and refreshing, but his appetite for life is only newly found. In the years preceding his decision to begin a degree in 2014, he endured his fair share of adversity.
A carpenter since the age of 18, Murray suffered a debilitating hand injury in his late 40s while building a house. He was operated on 10 days later, but the injury prevented him from continuing his work. That was in 2012. Three years before, in 2009, Murray lost his beloved grandmother to a stroke. The two events, combined with the enduring heartache of losing his father in 2004, culminated in a “significant life change”.
“It seemed like it all happened at once,” he says. “My hand started preventing me from being able to do what I liked to do and I had suffered some significant personal losses. It triggered something inside of me and I went through a really bad time mentally.”
But through adversity, Murray would find strength.
A father's advice
Murray was barely an adult when he began working as a carpenter. He was a fresh-faced school-leaver with the world at his feet and he didn’t initially favour entering a profession he describes as highly competitive and physically demanding. He liked cars and intended to pursue a career that would stoke his passion, but a conversation with his father changed that.
“I said to my dad that I wanted to be a mechanic,” he recalls. “Two weeks later, I was an apprentice carpenter. My dad knew what I was good at. I didn’t. I was clutching at straws.”
Murray grew to love the profession he was encouraged into. In the 1980s, he was the part owner of a small business. “We did kitchens,” he says. The work was enjoyable and copious, but that all changed with the onset of the recession in 1990.
Australia suffered its worst economic decline since the Great Depression and the effects reverberated across the country. “The economic downturn hit us hard,” Murray says. “The worked stopped overnight and that was the end of our business.”
Murray took it in his stride. He found work in the public service as a parking inspector and licence examiner before moving to the Canberra Institute of Technology (CIT). He worked initially in administration at CIT but when management discovered he was a carpenter, they asked him to take on a teaching load.
The decision was a no-brainer. Murray undertook a Certificate IV in Training and Assessment and began teaching the Certificate III in Carpentry – a field he continued to work odd jobs in up until injuring his hand in 2012.
Pursuing a new path
When hardship befell Murray in his late 40s, he felt it at full force. The injury that cruelled his carpentry career and the enduring grief caused by the loss of his father and grandmother were difficult to overcome. “Depression,” he says, “is a heavy, heavy thing. It took me a long time to get through that.”
For a long time the priorities in Murray’s life prevented him from fully committing to gaining further qualifications but with encouragement from close friends, Murray began the process of applying to study industrial design at the University of Canberra in 2014.
“I like to think that you meet people in your life who are supportive and encouraging and who help you when you get lost,” Murray says. “I’m lucky enough to have a few people in my life like that, and they helped me believe I could get to university and study industrial design.
“My friends said if that’s what you want to do, go for it. I didn’t know where to start. I sought advice and put together a portfolio of some of the work I had done – kitchens for people, wardrobes, very practical things. It took me about a month to pull it all together, but it was enough and I was accepted into the course.
"The whole experience was seamless and trouble-free, which played a big part in getting me to university.”
Murray admits studying hasn’t been without its challenges. There have been moments when, overwhelmed by the task at hand, he’s questioned his decision to come to university. “It wasn’t all smooth sailing to begin with,” he says.
“I was all at sea early on. I wasn’t proud of the results I was getting and I knew I needed to do something about it. It was a great learning experience, though. Without those early challenges, I don’t think I’d be as closely focused on my studies as I am now.”
He’s had to scale back his lifestyle, too, working part-time at a local building supplier. “I’ve shrunk my life down to subsistence living, but it’s been the most rewarding time that I’ve had, I think, ever, because it allows me to study and do what I love.”
The perfect remedy
It's a 120 kilometre round trip from Murray’s home in Collector, a quaint town off the Federal Highway between Canberra and Goulburn, to the University campus, but each day he makes the journey with excitement and anticipation. “What’s going to be new today?” he asks himself. In the face of unrelieved hardship, Murray took a leap of faith and found the remedy to his affliction as a mature age student.
“Going to university has given me purpose,” Murray says. “But more than that, it has opened my eyes to things I’d never considered ever before in my life. The reinvigoration of my spirit has come from studying here. I don’t get to see my friends as much as I used to because of my commitments at university, but they don’t mind because they know I’m now better off for having been here.”
Murray has completed the industrial design component of his course and is now undertaking a second major in interior architecture. He has plans to complete his honours in 2018, which he’d like to dedicate to perfecting an empathy suit he designed in the second year of his degree.
The suit is designed to help people better understand the physical challenges associated with ageing. When worn, it reduces younger adults' physical capacities in a direction consistent with ageing, helping those wearing it gain an idea of how older people navigate life.
Murray’s empathy suit is already being used by students and staff in the University’s nursing program, but he hopes to get it to the point that it can be used at the University of Canberra Public Hospital, which is due to open on campus next year.
“Before my grandmother died, I watched health care staff not associate with her circumstances very well,” he says. “The suit is the perfect opportunity to try and prevent that from happening to others, to make sure people understand what the elderly go through. I don’t want others to experience what my grandma did.”
Murray hasn’t ruled out undertaking postgraduate study in the future, either, acknowledging that it wasn’t on his radar when this journey began but that it’s now something “I can’t stop thinking about”.
“When I look at what I do at university, it’s what I do for me,” he says. “I’m doing it for me and it makes me happy. I want to get all of the ideas out of my head and if I’m the only person who enjoys them, I’m good with that – I’m absolutely fine with that.”
It’s been almost two hours since we sat down and Murray has barely touched his latte. It’s cold now, but that doesn’t diminish his mood. He’s about to see if his concrete vanity top floats and he’s “really, really excited about it”.
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Words by Antony Perry