The Gold Leaf Dinner with a Past St Hilda’s President

Georgie Macho

Georgie interviews past President, Lynn Gillam

Georgie interviews Lynn during the Gold Leaf Dinner

This past semester, I was lucky enough to attend the Gold Leaf dinner held in our very own Junior Common Room. This event poses as an opportunity to invite St. Hilda’s alumni back to the college to connect and interact with one another, and for many provides them with a chance to see how the college has changed since they attended. On this night, I had the chance to speak with one of St Hilda’s former Student Club Presidents, Lynn Gillam AM. Having attended the college from 1981 to 1984, Lynn now works as an ethicist for the Children’s Hospital and has also taught at the University of Melbourne. It was a pleasure to have dinner with her as we spoke about her time at St Hilda’s, what it is like now, and how it might look in the future. 

Table 1 enjoying their dinner during the event

Lynn, you now work as an ethicist, what exactly does that entail?

“It’s very different from what I did in my first undergraduate degree. I work at the Children’s Hospital as a clinical ethicist and that role, which is a relatively new one, involves assisting clinicians, mainly doctors, with ethically difficult decision making about complicated patient care.

So just to give you a couple of examples, I’m in a children’s hospital so a lot of it is around decisions that parents make for their children. It sometimes happens that parents refuse to have a lifesaving or relatively straightforward treatment for their child and in that situation, doctors can refer to me and my colleagues for assistance in deciding what to do about that.

Sometimes teenagers refuse treatments, or sometimes young people with mental health problems can be really difficult to treat without physically restraining them, and physically restraining them is a really confronting and awful experience for both the patient and the staff who do it. Sometimes we have to ask questions about what is the ethically appropriate thing to do. We work with clinicians to help them figure that out.”

I’m assuming you’ve come back every so often to Hilda’s for events like these since your time as a student?

“Ahh yes, I probably had a big gap and then quite a few years ago I was invited to be a Fellow. I didn’t even really know about College Fellows until the invitation came, but I was really pleased to be invited and so since then I’ve been coming not just to Fellows’ meetings but to other events here and there.”

Applause for the evening’s guest speaker, Sarah Fusinato (VP 2017)

And how do you think that the college has changed over that time?

“A lot.

So, obviously physically quite a lot of changes have happened and the amenities are much nicer – my memories of this room (JCR) involve carpets soaked in beer, so it was quite smelly. Obviously the amenities have improved! But even in talking to people this evening, there are so many commonalities in experience regardless of what the buildings look like, or what’s going on.

I also feel like, when I look back to those times, there was a lot of naivety about living in a community and how we related to each others. People just came in and did their thing. It seems to me now there’s a lot more focus on intentionally doing things in a particular way, and creating some sort of ground rules, I guess. for the community to live by. So that feels like a major change to me, that level of awareness of how people relate to each other and how you make good relationships and form a good community.

Another change that I do feel has happened is there seems to be a lot more organised activities across the broader spectrum.  The choir sounds like it’s a terrific idea and if there were more of that, that’d be terrific.”

Do you think there are more changes in the years to come?

“I don’t know. I think COVID was obviously a really big challenge. I also teach at the university, so I know that encouraging students to come back on campus has been a challenge. When lectures are online, people prefer to come online, when tutorials started happening in person, people didn’t really want to come in person, so that challenge of getting people back on site has been difficult. I imagine that here it hasn’t been a problem; people have wanted to come back.

So, I’m sure there’ll be changes in the way things work, technologically. But the extent to which people want to be in a physical community living with other people, I think that won’t change..

I guess the more you can give people the opportunity to, in this large group, find a smaller group of people with whom they have a particular shared interest and can develop skills together, that seems like a win to me. Once you start doing that, I guess you just keep seeing opportunities to do more of it, but I reckon the core of it’s just going to stay the same.

And I’m particularly pleased to hear that the college is still focusing on regional students and students who are first in family to go to university because to me that makes the nature of this community different from other colleges.”

Lynn and current Principal, James Hardiman chat during the event

Looking back on your time at Hilda’s, what aspect of college do you think was most significant for you in your life?

“One of the key things it gave me was a safe place to come. So, leaving home and coming to university felt much safer coming to a particular place. And then I was really aware that I had a really different experience of university than I would have had if I hadn’t lived in college.

I did Latin and Ancient Greek, and those are really tiny classes – I would have met half a dozen people. Here I met 150 people, and people who were doing really different things from me. So it gave me that circle of connections and friendship in a way that I just wouldn’t have had and I think that gave me quite a lot of confidence – that you can make really close connections with and be really good friends with people who are quite different from yourself and have different interests. I think you can see the person a bit more, rather than the externals of the course they’re doing or where they come from.

The other thing that was really pivotal is that having a Rhodes Scholarship allowed me to completely change my direction in life.  I wouldn’t have won a Rhodes Scholarship if I wasn’t here, and that’s been completely life changing for me. It was partly because I would never have applied for it, if not for a tutor here suggesting it. But I would never have been in the position to even be competitive if I hadn’t had the leadership opportunities that I had here through the College. My life just would have looked really different.”

A selection of Student Club Presidents from across the years

A massive thank you to Lynn for letting me interview her and to all of the alumni I met at this dinner. It was a pleasure to meet and speak with all of you; I hope I get the chance to see you all again.