Cecily Andersen makes a conscious choice to give as a financial donor to the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation in the same way that she has made a conscious choice to remain living in Kingaroy; keeping her long years of experience in education firmly in regional Queensland.
The graduate of Course 9 of the Foundation’s Australian Rural Leadership Program (ARLP) credits the experience with giving her the confidence to seize control of her career.
“I’m one of those women for whom the glass ceiling was real,” Cecily, the former Executive Director of Schools for the South Burnett Region, says.
“At 29 I was one of only two deputy principles in the entire state education system in Queensland, yet I was forever only asked to make the tea. I wasn’t included in meetings. I felt I was a fake.”
As Cecily took on more and more responsibility through acting principal roles, that feeling increased.
“I just had no confidence. I discovered this was very common. You did the job and had to do it five times better than your male counterparts, which nobody noticed. There was no support for you in leadership, and I thought I had to have experience in every facet before I could put myself forward for something formally,” she explains.
“I was encouraged to apply for the ARLP by a Fellow in Brisbane when the Foundation went to the state education office seeking sponsorship to gain a scholarship … That wonderful person encouraged me to apply, and it was their inclusive vision about capacity-building that led me to the course.” Cecily says.
It was the opening of a door that this ARLP alumna is now so passionate about opening for others.
“The ARLP is one of the most important things in my life. There are births, deaths, marriages and children – but this really was a key juncture in life,” Cecily says.
“It gave me really transformational experiences and I still think about them very often. One of the things I found transformative was receiving constant, honest, often blunt feedback. I learned strategies to take this on board, including things I didn’t like to hear. Everything from then on became feedback and now I even teach about giving and getting feedback,” she says.
From the experience of becoming genuinely lost with her group during the ARLP Kimberley session, to learning to accept wearing the same clothes for 13-days straight, Cecily quickly adapted to embrace discomfort and trust her reserves of inner strength.
“Sometimes you have to push yourself so outside the comfort zone that it reconstructs you with new behaviours,” she reflects.
“That sense of agency, that’s what the course gave me. As a female leader in a world that I started working in, and to some degree now, there were a lot of barriers presented for women, and you still have to be an agent of your own destiny. Having the self-awareness and self-confidence if you do meet with rejection, to disengage the ‘head talk’ that says you’re no good, is crucial.” Cecily says.
In 2013, after retiring from the senior education roles she held in her career, Cecily spent two years as a carer for her elderly mother. She then started her own education consultancy and works directly with the University of Southern Queensland.
“That’s when I decided to give as much as I could financially to the Foundation,” she says. “There were times when I didn’t have any income, but whenever I’ve been able to, I’ve tried to support others to access the opportunity the ARLP provides.
“I hope that while it may not be a big contribution, it might give someone else that gift of an experience that unlocks their own potential and their belief in themselves,” Cecily says.
“That’s what I love about the ARLP: it’s investing in the future.”
Looking forward, Cecily sees the ongoing strength of the ARLP as its grasp of the challenges that loom largest for rural communities and industries.
“One of the most impinging factors in regional, rural and remote Australia is access to high-quality services. To face this challenge, we need leaders who are astute at problem-solving and finding solutions within their local community; who know where to look for money; who are good negotiators; who are articulate; who can write applications for grants; who can learn how to be advocates; and who don’t expect to be rescued by anything external. That’s what a specifically rural leadership course taught us.” She says.
As the recipient of an ARLP scholarship from Education Queensland, Cecily has an abiding appreciation of the investment made in her.
“There are quite a number of us [alumni] from education backgrounds with ARLP scholarships that ended up reaching the executive level in our careers,” she reflects.
“If lots of us can pool together and give the opportunity to someone else, we know first-hand what it might mean for advancing their careers.”
And Cecily doesn’t only give back to the Foundation financially.
“Giving $50 makes a difference, and so does talking about your own experience with someone and drawing their attention to the program, or tapping someone on the shoulder. And if the Foundation’s ever asked me to do something locally, I make myself available. I build that into my calendar!” she laughs.