Acts of Courage - Alumnae Stories

In these stories about some of our brave alumnae, we celebrate the courage in women that helps to create a more equal world.

Feng-Yuan Liu (2004)

“It was at Lauriston that I cultivated my curiosity to explore new avenues, developed the courage to just ‘give it a go’, and instilled in me my commitment to excellence that got me to keep showing up, keep practicing and keep moving forward even when things got tough.”

A boundary-breaking entrepreneur and mum, alumna Feng-Yuan Liu spoke to Lauriston students at their Founder’s Day assembly in 2022 about her journey post Lauriston. She spoke about the challenges that she faced and overcame, personally and professionally.

Here is her story.

My Lauriston journey

I grew up as the eldest in a family of four kids. With only one working wage, it wasn’t easy for my parents to put me through a private school. There were lots of sacrifices made along the way, but dad was determined because he’d done his research and Lauriston was the one.

The reality is, academic excellence has always been a big deal for my parents. So sending me to Lauriston, they knew I would have the right support to help me grow and excel academically. And they weren’t wrong about that. I was inspired by my teachers, challenged by them, but in ways that I really came to appreciate.

I participated in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, and it’s still something I talk about to this day. It was through IB that I did my first proper bit of research and write up through the extended essay component, a skill that proved invaluable when I went on to study dietetics at university.

The amount of support I received with preparing for the final exams allowed me to create a methodical routine around doing practice exams, getting valuable and timely feedback from my teachers and knowing exactly where to focus on in my study time. This is what physically and mentally prepped me for final exams at the end of year 12. Even though in hindsight I recognise how gruelling it was, in the moment, there was so much camaraderie between my peers, and so much nurturing from our teachers that it felt like we were all in it together – and by the end of it all, it felt like a collective win that we all celebrated together. That kind of relationship building and bonding, and complete immersion and engagement in life are values that I bring forward in the work that I now do, in both the communities that I am part of and the ones that I have created with my clients.

More than academic excellence

It was during my time at Lauriston that I stretched well outside my comfort zone to participate in things I never would have otherwise participated in – and I’m so grateful I did, embodying the Lauriston value of Engagement in Life. It was through this that I discovered my love for debating, participated in the music community and played hockey and volleyball, and learnt to work in a team and experience the pride of representing my school at inter school sports.

It was at Lauriston that I cultivated my curiosity to explore new avenues, developed the courage to just “give it a go”, and instilled in me my commitment to excellence that got me to keep showing up, keep practicing and keep moving forward even when things got tough.

It’s these solid foundations and values developed during my time at Lauriston that I still fall back on even today.

My professional journey

These days, I am the CEO of my own company, using Nutrition as a foundation to coach high performance business owners, helping them recover from burnout and perform at their peak.

But my journey to where I am today has not been a straightforward one.

After graduating from Lauriston, my initial offer was for law school, but when I realised that I was always more into science at school, I quickly went back to the drawing board. It was actually my mum who suggested that I give nutrition and dietetics a go, but at the time I saw it as a stepping-stone into medicine. However, after the first couple of years, the subjects that I was most drawn to were the nutrition ones, so when the time came to branch out, I decided to stick with dietetics.

Throughout the course, the focus was placed on clinical dietetics, with a view that when you graduate, you compete for one of the very few new graduate clinical roles in major hospitals. I initially did a short stint in a metropolitan hospital. But this cemented for me that I really didn’t want to work in an environment where dietitians were more of an afterthought, and you never got to see patients for long enough to make any significant difference to their health and wellbeing. It was at this point that I decided to take matters into my own hands and start my own business in dietetics, something unheard of for a new graduate.

The courage to trust myself

My dad almost fell off his chair when I told him that I wasn’t going to go for a stable job in a hospital anymore and was going to forge a path for myself. My parents love me, but they’re also very conservative. It wasn’t a path they approved of or supported.

But this was also a turning point in my life where I learnt to trust and back myself.

In the early days, it was tough, and quitting was very tempting. I barely had any patients, I was still very green in my journey as a health professional, and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing as far as the business side of things. However, I asked a lot of questions and took on a lot of feedback from dietitians who were in private practice, and in my eyes were successful. During the next several years, I focused on being the best dietitian I could be.

When I first graduated from University, I was basing all my recommendations on guidelines, simply because this was what we were taught to do. But over the years, I realised that the guidelines were extremely limited. The biggest issue was that these guidelines were developed for the average healthy population – but that wasn’t who I saw. I worked with people with chronic health issues, with hormone imbalances, with specific performance needs. Following the dietary guidelines were making these people fatter, sicker and performing sub optimally, both physically and mentally. I dived into the science, examining the human physiology and biochemistry, and created a completely different protocol to help my clients. This was a breakthrough point in my career that saw me be courageous enough to step out of the box and do things completely differently, which ultimately saw me go from being a new graduate to being a pioneer within the industry.

But, while I achieved a level of excellence as a dietitian, I was still struggling to make sense of the business side of things. In 2015, I set up my own bricks and mortar clinic. On the surface, we had made it. But what was embarrassing for me to admit at the time was that while I had a team of practitioners and a full-time administrative assistant, I had to work 6.5 days a week, 12 hours a day both inside and outside my own clinic just to pay the bills, pay my staff and keep the doors open. It wasn’t sustainable – I couldn’t see how I could take a day off, go on a holiday, let alone have a baby one day.

The frustration with my situation and the desire to do better in the business kicked off a new phase in my journey where I committed to working with a mentor on growing my business. Over the next 12 months, I grew leaps and bounds, and once again stretched myself far outside my comfort zone. I shut down my physical premise and said goodbye to my team as I took everything online. I learnt to package up my expertise into high value programs, retreats and events, and deliver them in a way that allowed me to make a bigger impact without burning myself out. I took the business from under $100k to over half a million dollars in 12 months, and achieved what less than 1% of all dietitians achieve in business over the course of their entire careers.

Taking stock

These days, being a CEO means being able to take a big step back from time to time, to see where the gaps are for better ways to serve my clients, better ways to do my job and better ways to create the lasting impact I want to create in people’s lives, and then taking a giant leap forward with the courage to launch headfirst into the unknown, and the commitment to excellence to bring to life the big plans and goals I have for myself and my company.

Now, even though it’s been 18 years since I graduated from Lauriston, the relationship I have with this school is still strong, and I find myself drawn to engaging with the community and giving back to this community through my participation in the Career Expo as well as by being here today. For me, I have taken all of Lauriston’s values: Relationships, Engagement in Life, Courage, Creativity and Intellectual Curiosity, and embodied that through everything I have done since. It has formed a core part of who I am and how I operate, allowing me to step into being the fullest version of myself in business and in life.

To me, Lauriston truly is a School for life.

Sophie Tissot (2006)

“I believe the only way to increase diversity is to reduce unconscious bias, and we do that by making it normal for women and minority groups to hold positions of leadership.”

Sophie Tissot (nee Riddell) is an alumna who we are celebrating for the indomitable courage she was shown throughout her life and her career facing challenges and overcoming adversity.

Today, she is a Urology Surgical Trainee and Robotics Fellow at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne. She completed her medical degree at the University of Adelaide after which she returned to Melbourne to work at St Vincent’s Hospital. She completed a Master of Surgery (University of Sydney), became the inaugural Chief Surgical Resident of St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne (2017-2018) and gained a position on the Urology Society of Australia and New Zealand surgical training program which she commenced in 2019.

Sophie is currently involved in a project which is a validation study of hydrogel anatomical models to train doctors in robotic surgery. There has been a recent uptake of robotic surgery in favour of open or laparoscopic methods which has resulted in an all-time high in demand for robotic surgical training.

This hydrogel prostatectomy model training, provided through the Australia Medical Robotics Academy (AMRA), has the objective is to change the current approach to teaching robotic surgery, to reduce the overall surgical complication rates that currently sit at 17% at 30 days postoperatively. Sophie and her colleagues believe that virtual simulation and then operating, repetitively, on life-like hydrogel models is a safer, more efficient, and more ethical way to teach robotics.

As a woman in a male-dominated field, there are often intrinsic doubts about one’s skills and preparedness to undertake roles in the medical industry – the classic imposter syndrome. Sophie continues to build her skills and experience by seeking non-traditional educational techniques, which she strongly believes are the way of the future.

At an assembly at the end of 2021, where she accepted the OLA’s inaugural fellowship, Sophie had the following advice for the graduating Year 12s – including using courage to break down the conscious and unconscious biases that exist for women.

Be kind to yourself

For me, my greatest down, was receiving a phone call, in my final year of medical school, telling me my father had committed suicide. Medicine, nor my family or friends could have saved him. This experience made me realise how important our mental health is and I made a promise to myself to always prioritise my mental health. That doesn’t mean I never get sad, or angry, or frustrated. It just means I respect my inner dialogue, and most importantly I am kind and gentle to myself.

Lean in and stay true to who you are

I truly believe that the only way to make change is to put your hand up, lean in and get a seat at the table. In my life I have had the opportunity to sit on the club committee at my Surf Life Saving Club, at a time when our organisation was socially divided and our clubhouse was falling down requiring fundraising effort to rebuild.

I’ve also sat on the Medical Advisory Board at St Vincent’s Hospital as their inaugural chief surgical resident, when junior doctors did not have a voice about their working environment or the support they were receiving for their surgical careers.

In both roles I was certainly the minority regarding my gender and my age.

Intrinsic qualities that I learnt from being a Lauriston Girl and having a mother and aunty who were also Lauriston Girls, gave me the confidence and skills to speak my mind. I found the more I spoke up, the more authentic I was to who I am, the more passionately I behaved and I guess the harder I worked, the more opportunities came my way. I believe the only way to increase diversity is to reduce unconscious bias, and we do that by making it normal for women and minority groups to hold positions of leadership.

Resilience will serve you well

Six months before I started in the national surgical training program for urology, my Aunty whom I was very close with died of a surgical complication. A rare complication in the hands of a very experienced surgeon. To then only months later start my own journey of learning how to operate, this personal experience added another layer of complexity. I had to draw on many of the characteristics of myself that I learnt from being a Lauriston girl, and particularly from the time I had in Howqua. I had to be resilient, I had to work through challenges, and I had to find a way to be comfortable and confident with who I was, and how I was going to live my life.

All Lauriston girls share these characteristics in you, even if they don’t know it. I used to run a surf lifesaving camp for around 100 kids on the Mornington peninsula at the end of their year 9 year. I could always pick the Lauriston girls from the crowd. They had just come back from Howqua, besides for smashing the morning runs, and diving headfirst into the surf, they were the easiest to get along with and they were the toughest.

Adapt to a changing world

Careers in the future will be highly integrated with technology, and artificial intelligence will be used to complete many aspects of your jobs. Technology is often advancing faster than the teaching that is provided to use and integrate it. Those that will succeed in this arena, are the ones that are able to adapt and to seek out alternative, non-traditional methods to learn how to work with technology. Robotic surgery will be a part of my future career, but learning robotics is not a compulsory component of the College of Surgeons Education Program. Hence, I had to look elsewhere, and became involved with the Australian Medical Robotics Academy established by Professor Tony Costello.

Now I have the opportunity a full robotic operation on a hydrogel model of a male pelvis, to remove their prostate without touching a human in a live operating theatre. A unique and priceless learning experience.

Jessica Morrison (2010)

“Remain open to opportunities that come your way and know that if you really want to get somewhere, there are many ways to get there!”

Jessica Morrison won gold as a member of the Australian Women’s Fours rowing team at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

However, she didn’t intend to be a rower, in fact she was a keen swimmer and aspired to be an Olympic swimmer. After she graduated from Lauriston, she was offered a swimming scholarship at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra with her goal at that time to represent Australia by swimming at the 2012 London Olympics.

Even though she performed well in competitions, she wasn’t selected for the 2012 games. Jess subsequently developed a shoulder injury and needed a full shoulder reconstruction. While she was undergoing rehabilitation she met Kim Brennan, an Olympic medalist who rowed for Australia at the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics. Kim encouraged her to try rowing – she was 21 – the rest is history.

Leaning in with courage

One of the greatest challenges Jess had to learn was to build her endurance. In swimming, races are short and intense, whereas in rowing the races are much longer, with lower body strength the key as opposed to upper body.

Jess also had to learn to row as a member of a team. She had always been involved in individual sports and rowing needs everyone in the boat to work together. In her first regatta experience – she was beaten by a much younger schoolgirls’ crew who simply worked very well as a team.

As her second Olympics, with Rio 2016 under her belt, Jess was more experienced more confident and determined to win gold in Tokyo. For Jess, competing at an Olympic level is very much a mental game. She told us that most of the competitors have done just as much training so the difference can come down to the ability to stay focused and execute the race plan under pressure.

“In the Fours event we were confident that we had what was needed to win. We had a strong start and excellent mid-race rhythm but the last 500m was very tight and required a real wind to the line. We knew we needed to stay clean and move together. The team from the Netherlands really piled on the pressure but we managed to hold them off, beating them by just 0.34 seconds!”

We interviewed Jess Morrison in our recent Lauriston Life magazine about her experience at Lauriston and the elements that helped set her up for success.

Recipe for success

I took on the challenge of undertaking the International Baccalaureate Diploma in Year 11 and 12. I knew it was a huge workload and at the time I had a heavy training programme, so I knew it was going to be tough to achieve success in both areas. The Head of IB offered me the option of completing the diploma over three years but I politely declined. If anything, it made me more determined to prove that I could balance both commitments and be successful in both! These two years helped me learn how to structure my week, set bite size short term goals, manage my time, and set no limit for myself on what I thought I was capable of.

The same schedule I had back in school applies to my life today as an athlete and juggling a part-time career in consulting. It is a very familiar territory for me and one I know how to navigate well. I was awarded the Sir Angus Mitchell Award for Leadership, Sport and Academics in Year 12. It is something I was very honoured and proud to receive from the school at the time.

 

Highlights of Lauriston

Howqua was such a rich and fulfilling year for me and one I could have easily opted out of to stay back in Melbourne to train. I’m glad I made the decision to take some time away from swimming and to live up in the bush with my classmates and experience something totally different. I think at that age it’s risky to take your sporting endeavours too seriously because it can take you away from enjoying all the opportunities school has to offer and it is not going to affect your long-term performance. Howqua taught me to embrace change and to get excited about new experiences and that is the mantra I have taken with me to where I am today.

Advice for aspiring elite athletes

The support I received from my parents and coaches has given me the confidence to pursue my dreams, even when it meant changing my sport. My advice would be to remain open to opportunities that come your way and to know that if you really want to get somewhere, there are many ways to get there!

Zoe Mackenzie (1989)

“Lauriston taught me actual languages: French and English. University taught me other languages: German and Spanish, as well as the language of the law. My career has taught me the languages of business, government, media and politics.”

In 2022 Zoe McKenzie was endorsed by the Liberal party to stand as the member for Flinders. This is a fitting culmination of her leadership experience and roles over the years, her passionate attitude of service, and her affinity with community.

The following story is adapted from a speech Zoe delivered to Lauriston students as part of their Career Expo, where a diverse range of courageous alumni speak to senior students about their experiences after graduating from Lauriston. It was also published in our June 2020 edition of Lauriston Life.

Embracing ambiguity, change and opportunity

Embracing ambiguity, learning from failure, to be creative in seeking solutions and helping others, and to be inspired to be opportunity finders and problem-solvers and collaborators are values held by Zoe. Her varied career path is a perfect illustration of embracing ambiguity, change and opportunity – from her work in France as part of an education think tank to her roles on the boards of the Australia Council for the Arts and Melbourne University Humanities Foundation.

Zoe says that critical thinking – the ability to critical think, assess, identify bias and manipulation, to reason, rationalise, identify truth and falsehood – was one of the most valuable skills she gained from Lauriston. And her invitation to participate in a Year 8 Leadership Program with another girl in her year was the surprising catalyst for a life-long love of literacy and leadership in all its guises.

‘I was a painfully quiet girl and wasn’t sure why the School picked me, but, like most things at Lauriston, I embraced the opportunity.

‘We joined a hundred or so other students from schools across Melbourne and listened to leaders from all kinds of domains – politics, sports, humanitarian work – and we discussed what it meant to be a leader. It is one of my most distinct memories from Lauriston. It was probably the first time I interacted with people who are called “leaders” in our system. But it was certainly not the last.’

‘If there is one lesson Lauriston taught me, it is this: you can be a leader. While at school all the skills of leadership are developed, including reason, critical thinking, an ability to analyse, argue, and bring others with you. At home, with parents, family and community, we develop the many values of leadership including listening, self-discipline and compassion. All it takes from here is hard work, and lots of it.’

Zoe has had the privilege of working with many remarkable and successful leaders across myriad fields. She has met and worked alongside a number of Australian Prime Ministers, Ministers, State and Territory Premiers, and, to no one’s more greater surprise than her own, had long corridor chats with the Presidents of France, Italy and the United States. In various capacities she has worked with many of Australia’s ASX 100 CEOs and Chairs, the Vice Chancellors of our universities, and the CEOs, Directors and Artistic Directors of our greatest cultural institutions.

‘Leaders – as I know them – are just like you and me. They are not superhuman: they are hard working, and worthy of our gratitude in their pursuit of our interests. Amongst those people I have met who are truly remarkable, many do not aspire to leadership. I find the superhuman qualities of kindness, wisdom, curiosity and excellence in the writers, the dancers, the sculptors, the teachers, the sportswomen and their coaches, the dedicated parents, and the volunteers.

Zoe comments that although they were a nascent stage of the complex program that exists today, Lauriston’s many leadership opportunities taught her how to think, how to explain, how to bring people along with her, and how to understand and respect them if she fails. Debating was one of the most important skills she gained at Lauriston ad honed at University; it taught her how to search for and empathise with arguments which were not her own.

‘I tend to see all meaningful skills as versions of languages.

‘Lauriston taught me actual languages: French and English. University taught me other languages: German and Spanish, as well as the language of the law. My career has taught me the languages of business, government, media and politics.

‘I spend most of my professional life translating one language to speakers of the other and I am surprised, in this era, how many people remain monolingual. By this I do not mean they only speak English. I mean that they only speak business, or they only speak bureaucratese.

‘The modern world seems to require each of us to understand and speak multiple languages. There is enormous value in being able to put yourself in the shoes of your interlocutors, and speak to them in a language they understand.’

When Zoe left School, law was a natural starting place for developing her interest in government and languages, and she particularly enjoyed the practice of industrial relations, which she describes as ‘effectively a legal setting for the jostle for power between employers and unionised labour.’

But it was at university, while working part-time for the then Attorney General in the Kennett Government, that Zoe had her first taste of policy-making. She found the lego-like exercise of designing systems enthralling, and when the chance to work with the Federal Attorney General came up after a few years of legal practice, she leapt at the chance.

Later, she returned to law, then to senior policy roles in education, communications, the arts and, finally, to international trade because she felt more ‘useful and impactful there’.

Zoe has a strong element of public service in her DNA which she attributes this to her mother, who instilled a certain sense of duty: If you are smart, you must apply it to be useful to others. This philosophy of giving back for the greater good of the community is part of the broader base of learning literacies embedded in Lauriston’s curriculum and is considered a vital mindset for young people in today’s every-changing world.