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Dr Tiffany Donnelly

04 April 2013

Dr Tiffany Donnelly the VP (Vice Principal) of The Women’s College within the University of Sydney has provided the College’s students with sane, sustainable and fulfilling advice for 12 years now and may actually have a work life balance that is as close to perfect as one can get.

Employed by Quentin Bryce, now Australia’s Governor-General, back when she was the Principal of Women’s College, Tiffany, who has a PhD in English Literature and whose doctorate focussed on the life of a little known, rather “whacky”, Victorian feminist who emigrated here from Britain, runs the College’s academic and mentoring programs.

“I’m interested in people who push the envelope, who are enterprising and open out spheres of influence. I think what happens here at Women’s College reflects that preoccupation,” says Tiffany.

Hired, she believes, because “Quentin wanted a young woman who would assist students, be a role model, and consult with them around the issues that affect them at university, as well as in their transition from girls to young women taking their first steps out into professional life,” Tiffany, quite literally, lives and breathes the College.

“We live on the head of a pin,” she says, indicating a wing of the College building and explaining that her position requires her and her young family to reside on campus. The arrangement suits her and her archaeologist husband and their little boys and is almost a “bit Utopian” – college life having even provided her with an unending supply of willing and motivated baby sitters.

The Principal of the College is also a live-in position, and the new incumbent, Dr Amanda Bell, is experiencing her first taste of a life that Tiffany explains is a whirlwind calendar of social and work events.

“Amanda’s aim is to get Women’s College recognised in the wider community for what it is: this country’s premier institution for women. That’s actually one of Australia’s best-kept secrets and Amanda’s determined it doesn’t stay that way. She is such a high level strategist – working with her to develop our programs is so dynamic and that’s been incredibly inspiring and reinvigorating.

“Twelve years in the position is something I never expected, and it has crossed my mind that I could leave, but why leave what remains for me the ideal job? When it’s time to leave, it will be self evident.”

Running the academic and mentoring programs of the college, calls on Tiffany to organise tutors for students after hours as an adjunct to their normal course loads, as well as advise on degree changes and other academic issues. The tutorial program is heavily utilised by students. The College’s history of academic rigour and results accounts for its popularity.

Informal peer mentoring is part of College life and encourages students to network with peers.

However, it is the formal mentoring program, which has been running for the past eight years, the last five under Tiffany’s direction, which is hugely influential.

Students in third year and above, coming toward the end of their degrees, are linked to their own professional mentor in the field they’re hoping to enter on graduating. The program asks for a minimum of four meetings a year; often there are more and it is up to the student to drive the meetings and discussions.

The challenge for Tiffany comes in the matchmaking process and access to alumnae and their networks is a distinct advantage.

“We go for a younger demographic in mentors. They’re usually at least five years out of university and into their careers. We’ve done this because we know students can find it a bit intimidating to be dealing with the CEO of a business straight up.

“My job is to provide students with the tools and means to figure out the first steps of their career path. The relationship between mentor and mentee is pivotal in helping them transition out from College and university into the professions by providing a wider network,” explains Tiffany.

The program has been very successful: about ¾ of the students who are eligible take it up, leaving Tiffany to find about 70 mentors a year.

“What we are trying to do, especially with new Principal, is to develop the program into more than just mentoring - that’s just one of a suite of tools and skills young female graduates need. College transitions young women from high school through university very successfully, we know this because of our low attrition rates.

Now we want to give our students a really positive way into the professions they’ve chosen… a head start. Not only will they know where they’re headed, they’ll know a little about what to expect,” believes Tiffany.

Partnering with institutions on the hunt for strong female graduates is the plan. It’s about providing young women with the skills, support and the confidence to match their abilities.

“I deal with people at a time of life that is full of potential and that’s wonderful to be around,” says Tiffany, who admits the driving addiction in what she does is “the privilege of watching and being part of a process that has such a positive impact on lives.”

The Women’s College
In 1887, just six years after the University of Sydney resolved to open its doors to women, and allow them to matriculate with a degree, a group of interested citizens began a movement to establish a College for women within the University. Unlike the existing men’s colleges it was to be non-denominational but in all other respects would provide women students with the same opportunities for collegiate residence enjoyed by men. The College opened in 1892 with four students, making history as the first university college for women in Australia and also within the British Commonwealth. The university’s distinctly modern take on women, allowing them to actually take a degree and not just enrol in courses, has undoubtedly been a major historical influence on the professional lives of women in Australia. The College has biographical registers which document the College’s students, its academic and administrative staff and the members of its governing Council. Since 1995 the College has been charting and bringing together details of students’ family background, schooling, University achievements and subsequent careers. Information has been gathered from published and archival sources, and from questionnaires distributed to students and family members. More than 2000 women are represented in the first three landmark volumes, providing a significant survey of the lives and families of women in higher education in Australia. The next part of the project will deal with those students enrolled in College and university after 1968 and should prove equally fascinating.