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Alumni Stories

Set free from the fear of failure

“If I have learnt anything in my life it is that the things that are daunting, that feel uncomfortable and push us outside our comfort zone are often the very things that are the most rewarding.”

UC alumni, Tim Fulton, shared the story of his uni journey at the UC Commencement Ceremony that brought many to tears and left students inspired and motivated to tackle their studies with a fresh perspective.

Below is the full transcript of his Commencement Ceremony speech.

Good morning Vice-Chancellor, Distinguished Guests, Staff and commencing students. I would like to thank the Vice-Chancellor and the staff of the Community Engagement team for the opportunity to speak to you on this special occasion as we celebrate the commencement of the Academic Year.

As mentioned, I graduated from the University of Canberra with a Bachelor of Graphic Design just a few short years ago, so when I received an email from the Community Engagement team at the end of last year to speak at this event, I was both surprised and humbled. It was exciting for the first few weeks over the summer as I jotted down ideas about what I would share with you today. But as this day came closer and closer, I became more and more nervous and began to question why I had ever accepted the offer. 

This reminded me a lot of uni and maybe you too can relate to the excitement of receiving your acceptance letter. Maybe today you too are feeling nervous. Not sure of what lies ahead. If I have learnt anything in my life it is that the things that are daunting, that feel uncomfortable and push us outside our comfort zone are often the very things that are the most rewarding. 

Before speaking about my time at UC I would like to share with you a part of my journey that is not often told in the list of my academic achievements. 

As a child I had been diagnosed with learning delays, particularly in the areas of literacy. I was unable to read and write and I was quickly falling behind my peers at school. My parents had taken me from specialist to specialist to try and find a solution. Some prescribed medications, others additional learning support whilst others put me in the ‘too hard basket’ and told my parents I would never be at the same level as my peers.

Desperate to find an answer, my mum and I flew to Seattle so that I could attend an intensive three-month learning program. I returned from that program with significant improvements in my reading and writing - but more importantly with a renewed sense of confidence. However, like the famous saying ‘overnight success usually takes about 10 years’ my difficulties with language and communication didn’t immediately resolve themselves. 

It is interesting looking back, connecting dots and seeing how events in our lives correlate with one another.

I have learnt that adversity can often lead to very unexpected rewards and if it wasn’t for those early struggles I would most likely not be here today speaking to you. Those early struggles taught me the importance of working hard and never giving up. But it also sparked a fascination with how we communicate and this curiosity eventually led me to pursuing a degree in Graphic Design at UC. It is interesting how one of my greatest weaknesses is now one of my greatest strengths.

People attend university for a variety of reasons. Some of you may be attending university for the prospect of future career opportunities, the acquisition of knowledge or simply the love of learning. Maybe even family pressure, a sense of personal obligation or simply because ‘that is what you do’.  For me it was a combination of all these reasons, and I found myself at Orientation Week not entirely sure whether the degree I had chosen or the whole ‘uni thing’ was for me. 

These feelings were accentuated when I found myself late to my first lecture due to a series of unfortunate events. Then later walking into the wrong room for my first tutorial – rather than my introduction to communication class, I found myself in a Spanish tutorial. My tertiary education didn’t exactly begin the way I had planned.

The first semester was both exciting and daunting. I had attended the same school my entire life and so finding myself on a big campus with thousands of students and not knowing anyone was lonely. On top of this, I was so anxious that I was going to fail my classes and find myself at the end semester as a uni drop-out.

Fortunately, during one of my lectures a student-mentoring program run by the university was mentioned.  I quickly signed up and for most of the first semester I met with a student-mentor each week. We discussed my assignments, but it was also simply nice to have a familiar face on campus. 

When my first assignments were returned, I was shocked. I hadn’t failed. I had done really well. At the end of the first semester I set myself a big audacious goal. I wanted to receive straight HD’s in all of my remaining classes. Some people questioned the longevity of the idea or simply whether it was even possible — but I thought why not?As I look back I realise how much struggling through primary school had impacted my sense of worth. Being labelled dumb and told I was a ‘no-hoper’ had shattered my confidence. Throughout school and now into uni I carried the burden of needing to be perfect. I presented a confident facade but on the inside I felt hopeless and vulnerable. 

The first few HD’s gave me a bit of a kick. The first 100% assignment was a moment of excitement. The first 100% unit a new novelty. But very quickly I realised it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t filling the identity and confidence hole that I was desperately trying to fill. I needed to work harder I thought. For the next two and half years my life revolved around obtaining a perfect grade point average — straight HDs.

At the start of 2016 I had one unit to complete to finish my Bachelor’s degree. I was on track to finishing my degree with a perfect GPA when I started feeling really unwell. I would wake up each night in agony, hot and sweaty with a sore throat and muscle cramps. Over the course of the semester the pain became worse– to the point that I couldn’t walk or lift myself up in bed in the morning.

A few weeks later I found myself in a hospital bed unable to move – the reality of the symptoms that I had excused for tiredness, stress or whatever reason I could think of at the time now became fully evident. After two weeks in hospital I was diagnosed with a rare auto-immune disease that affects approximately 1 in 500,000 people. My body’s immune system was attacking my body. At the age of 22 I was faced with an uncertain and frightening future, house-bound and unable to work or study. 

It was strange, the trials with my health in 2016 actually set me free because my greatest fear, the fear of failing, had been realised and yet I was still alive.

When I was able to recommence uni six months later between treatments at the hospital, I returned with a tempered attitude simply grateful for the opportunity to learn.  I was no longer just here to achieve certain grades. 

I realised that it was about the journey. And learning isn’t necessarily acquired through gaining perfect grades. It’s gained through asking questions, trying new things, testing the boundaries, challenging yourself and being open to feedback. Learning doesn’t start at the beginning of uni and it certainly doesn’t end when you graduate. In fact, at the end of your degree, you can expect to have a whole lot more questions than you started with. But if you work hard and make the most of the expertise and mentors available to you, also expect to have a whole lot more knowledge, understanding and tools that you can use to find the answers, create the answers… or uncover more questions.

Uni is a time of discovery and creativity and an opportunity to challenge the status quo. Work hard and pursue excellence. Look for opportunities to expand your experiences; study long or short term overseas, join a uni club or interest group on campus or utilise the many great facilitates available.

During my time at uni I had the privilege of meeting people from all walks of life, some of whom I am in contact with today, and some who provided me with my first career opportunities. Uni is difficult and stressful at times but building a supportive network of people around you can make all the difference. I owe my academic success and degree to my family members, tutorial teachers, lecturers, staff and friends who supported me throughout my time here at the University of Canberra – but especially during the most difficult time of my life in 2016.

I know at different stages along your journey you may be faced with some challenging hurdles. But know that one day, if you persist, you will stand at your graduation triumphant. May you be encouraged knowing that these challenges will produce perseverance, and that your perseverance will develop your character and your character, a hope for a brighter future for both yourself and those around you. This hope coupled with the array of skills you will develop will be a formidable force to impact our society for the better.

Co-founder of Apple, Steve Jobs said. “Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition."

I wish you all the best as you commence this new academic year.

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