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Students in Focus

Pushing past personal horizons

Belinda Harris initially came to Canberra to turn her life around; five years later, the move has eventuated into an opportunity to change the lives of many others.

A fourth-year student completing a double degree in architecture and interior architecture, Belinda and fellow University of Canberra student Qiaochu Yang, have completed training to join Stanford University’s prestigious University Fellows Program.

The global program brings together student leaders to empower them to increase engagement on campus through innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity, and design thinking.

At just 34, Belinda has had considerable life experience, allowing her to visualise a dramatically different life on campus at the University of Canberra.

She came to Canberra in a bid to effectively start her life again after a harrowing, life-changing moment in Adelaide.

Her partner, school-teacher Sam Kellett, was taken by a great white shark while spear fishing with friends off South Australia’s Goldsmith Beach on 8 February 2014. His body was never found.

For Belinda, years of dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder followed, as she struggled to overcome her grief. 

Integral to the strategy to regain control was a move away from Adelaide and the memories.

“Sam’s death threw me for six,” Belinda said. “I needed a fresh start, a new environment, so I came to Canberra.”

With an arts background and plenty of life skills, ranging from working in ski fields to time spent as a veterinary assistant, Belinda was used to stepping beyond her comfort zone and trying new things.

As she settled into Canberra in 2015 as a 29-year-old, she was keen to find her consuming passion – and completing an Advanced Diploma in Interior Design at Canberra’s Institute of Technology revealed it.

“I discovered my passion for interior design at CIT, then I came to UC and discovered the theory behind the conceptual foundations of architecture, which took me to new levels in both,” Belinda said.

As a mature age student, Belinda hit the ground running, and her studies became all-consuming. “They turned my life around. I am happy to do a 14-hour day because I love it so much,” she said.

Not content with conquering the course, Belinda was determined to explore further.

And coincidently in 2018, one of the top design universities in the world, Stanford, sent out an email in a global search for University Innovation Fellows.

Under the program, student leaders from around the world congregate at a four-day workshop in California’s Silicon Valley, where innovation and entrepreneurship are taken to their limits.

Belinda and Qiaochu, a second-year Bachelor of Architecture student at UC, were placed together in a bid to build a project that would satisfy Stanford University adjudicators.

“We had never crossed paths or met before undertaking the application process,” Belinda said.

Now, after an exhaustive process, they are on the verge of securing a place in next year’s workshop; all that is left is to assure Stanford that they are progressing their project. And Belinda’s commitment is obvious.

“I really wanted to do a project for UC. The University has done so much for me, and it’s an incredible privilege,” she said.

For their project, Belinda and Qiaochu are developing a campus map. But this is no ordinary map, says Belinda.

“I interviewed a lot of students, and found that a lot of people at UC don’t interact,” she said. “We need to break down barriers, so interaction and engagement can easily occur. We are looking to roll out a project map to identify the many valuable resources here that staff and students aren’t aware of.”

Belinda is keen to use skills attained during the Stanford process.

“We approached the project from an innovation perspective,” she said. “Students can use integrated learning to help build the map project. We would also like to see student profiles built into the map.”

And there is scope in the project to go beyond UC. “We could integrate Canberra more broadly into our community, and we could integrate with industry as well,” Belinda said.

As a self-confessed introvert, the process has taken Belinda constantly out of her comfort zone.

“In our first week, we had to interview six students. I didn’t think I was capable of doing it, but it has been life-changing in terms of building confidence,” she said.

Belinda says that thanks to her life experiences, one thing she brings to the table is empathy, and the ability to look at a problem from somebody else’s viewpoint.

Belinda and Qiaochu’s project will potentially result in an innovation that will benefit the entire UC community.

Through resilience and determination, with a will to move forward after such a confronting life-experience, Belinda demonstrates the importance of reaching beyond your area of comfort, and using a passion for learning to build connection and drive change.

Photo by Madeleine Wood

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