First Dinner Recreation Speech – Cheryl Iser

St Hilda’s, 26th February 2024

Thank you, Kate, for organising our reunion this evening.  We know that record-keeping of alumni addresses over 60 years has often been haphazard and we are not always easy to find but you have worked very hard to gather us here together.

It is a great opportunity to share where we are now in this world of challenge, conflict, and change and perhaps to recall the years we spent at St Hilda’s.

Kate has asked me to spend a few minutes reflecting on my experience as a Foundation student arriving here in 1964 and what that still means for me 60 years later. But I look around and see many of you who have achieved and contributed so much and who could do this more appropriately. 

So, I think of Mrs Smart’s comment to a journalist when asked in 1964 about the selection of students:

“You want a balance of brilliant girls and all-round girls.”

Perhaps she also meant girls like me who might gain something from their encounter with those brilliant girls. I would love to hear your memories ,but these are mine.

26th February 1964.

For some of you being here at St Hilda’s was the fulfilment of a dream.

I have no memory of our first dinner at all. 

I notice my signature is at the very end of the list.

I may well have been dragging my feet getting through the door to the Dining Hall.

Because the sequence of events that brought me here was quite serendipitous and seemed quite out of my control.

A change of the school leaving age in Year 10 saved me from a hairdressing career. 

A catholic boyfriend in Year 11 led to my punishment/correction at a Presbyterian boarding school in year 12.

There, at the end of the year, the principal called me into her office and insisted that I apply for a university place – completely against the wishes of my parents.

A schoolfriend encouraged me to join her at St Hilda’s.  Mary then abandoned me for a second year Matric and I was on my own.

Knowing very little about the courses or subjects available at a university, I saw it as an extension of school, so I chose the same subjects.  St Hilda’s seemed a convenient place to stay while I learnt how to teach: Presbyterian, no road to cross to get to my lectures were good arguments to use to my parents.

I was young, not quite 17, quite ignorant, apprehensive, cautious, and watchful.  But if I could learn how to eat an orange with a teaspoon at boarding school, perhaps I could learn how to live in a university college.

What I eventually found here was a life-changing, life-enriching experience.

We were such a diverse group.  I had a big gap to bridge between where I came from and what I found here: ideas and values quite alien to the culture of my small, rural town and family.  But among the 87 students, about 53 came from the country or outer suburbia and 49 were freshers.   Quite a few of us were on teaching studentships.  I found supportive friends at the same time as I experienced the broadening of horizons that Mrs Smart believed made colleges an important part of university life.

I was in the Mortlake Room – although I never did discover who in Mortlake knew about St Hilda’s to provide the funds to furnish it – a room of my own but with Clare close by.  The open doors between us developed scorch marks from the heaters above them.

Here, I found freedom, illuminating conversation and fun.  I was very happy.  It was OK to wake up early and read, I loved my lectures, tutorials, the library, listening to what my friends were learning and thinking. (Clare, Philosophy, Rob, Criminology, Al, Indian Studies, Joan, Physics.)

Our corridor was itself a learning centre:  Wendy Davenport, Judy Swinbank, Netty, Libby, later, Susie Holmes, Judy Wilson, Marg Lavender and Kerry Peterson.

In the Dining Hall, Mrs Smart and her guests expanded my horizons further.  After my late lectures, I occasionally had to sit at tables where the discussion was way above my head but left me awed and fascinated. (I just hoped Anne Cutler wouldn’t ask me a question.) I caught a glimpse of Newman’s ‘climate of scholarship’.  Sometimes I would come in here at night and listen to Margaret Hair practising on the piano.  (There were no special music rooms.) I had little difficulty identifying those brilliant girls.

We were not living in a ghetto.  As a college of women, there was an obvious attraction in having contact with the neighbouring colleges. (I see some of their members here tonight.)  And our older students promoted the value of joining university societies. (Nola sang in The Mikado in the Union Theatre.)  We could cut lunches to attend meetings on campus and without a functioning library of our own, we needed to frequent the Baillieu.

Of course, it wasn’t always idyllic or harmonious. There was loneliness, bewilderment, anxiety, misunderstanding, heartache.  Rules were broken, some more minor than others:  trousers rolled up under gowns, gentlemen here after 10 pm, walls climbed, tutorials missed, (never those with Bill Kent,) duties and responsibilities avoided. Although I did feel sorry for those who lived opposite the corridor phones!

But we were a community, with a code of courtesy fostered by Mrs Smart herself. 

So, what did we take with us when we left?   My record of our valedictory dinner in 1966 notes that Joan spoke about happiness; Clare wanted us to know and be ourselves; Heather-Ann urged us to keep in touch with reality (perhaps the need to do some work or to remember those less privileged?) while we had our fun.

I took with me an abundance of friends and a better understanding of the value of different kinds of friendships.

I took a love of learning, and an awareness of the contribution of disciplines other than my own.

I took an appreciation of individual difference, a respect for ‘communitas’, and what it takes to get along in a community.

I think I really was educated in the broader sense Marjorie Smart wanted for us and I count my years here as one of the many blessings in my life.  My overwhelming sense of gratitude to St Hilda’s has kept me hovering around it ever since.

Nieces and nephews as students, daughters as tutors, the Streoneshahl committee and Council membership have all provided me with an excuse to visit.

I have hoped that St Hilda’s would always offer a wide range of students the same opportunities we enjoyed. 

And by maintaining a fine reputation and continuing to develop a supportive scholarship program, it seems to be doing just that – as we can see when we meet students like you who have joined us tonight.

So – I thank you all, friends from the past and many who have continued through to my present, St Hilda’s staff who have made this reunion possible and the students of today who are making their own contributions to our wonderful community.