Australian Catholic University has added a touch of Hollywood to its Ballarat campus with the arrival of its new campus dean Professor Bridget Aitchison.
Professor Aitchison, who stepped in to the role in June, was adopted in to a Hollywood acting family as a baby and grew up in Tinseltown.
A life of academia rather than acting instead landed her in her “true” home in Australia.
Despite living here for most of the past 30 years, her distinctive Los Angeles accent has not dimmed and most people assume she’s a recent arrival to our shores.
But she suspects she has always, deep down, been Australian.
“On my first visit, within 24 hours of stepping off the plane, I decided the stork had dropped me in the wrong country and I probably would have moved here anyway,” she said.
“It was New Year’s Eve 1987, my mother married an Australian and I came out to visit. I don’t know whether she was smart, manipulative or both but she introduced me to a really great guy.”
Although that first relationship came to an end, Professor Aitchison had arranged permanent residence, transferred her studies to Australia and knew she would never permanently return to the US.
About a year later she met the man who became her husband, and they had two children in quick succession. But tragedy struck when he died of a heart attack aged 33 leaving Ms Aitchison a young widow with two toddler daughters.
“I was working on my doctorate which took 10 years instead of three. I had to go to work to support my family, raise the kids and study all at the same time but somehow I managed.”
Her original study was a doctorate in transformational drama: theatre for social and community change with minors in dance and political science.
“People are very warm, very welcoming and when I mentioned on some Facebook groups I’m on that I was moving to Ballarat, strangers reached out to me.”Professor Bridget Aitchison
“I wanted a doctorate that would actually make a difference rather than a book sitting on a shelf gathering dust,” she said. “Working with city kids morphed in to youth suicide prevention and a show Back from Nowhere, which did a season at the Sydney Opera House, which actually saved lives.”
Teaching in theatre studies and running a drama department followed, as did a number of steps which led her to run a Christian teacher training college.
Teaching in the faith-based sector has allowed Professor Aitchison to practice her beliefs, though it did necessitate a change in denomination along the way.
“I was raised Catholic but early in my career went to work in the protestant sector which necessitated a move of church, but I retain a deep respect for my Catholic upbringing and education. I’m a practicing protestant now with a deep faith in God that transcends institutional religion.”
She feels the faith-based education sector has an added element of genuine care for its students that goes beyond what a normal university would offer.
In 2009 Professor Aitchison was lured back to the US to work at Indiana Wesleyan University in a role where she helped develop the university’s reach around the globe.
“It was a phenomenal experience to go from running a small Christian teachers college to running that division at America’s second largest protestant university .. offering degrees around the world through partnerships with local providers,” she said.
Rather than traditional campus-based degrees, they offered degrees designed for people working full time or raising children. Study is offered one night a week or online, one unit at a time usually for eight weeks per unit, and units completed back to back with no breaks.
The division had about 12,000 effective full-time students studying 250 degrees with almost 2500 staff.
When they looked to expand in to the Asia Pacific region, Professor Aitchison volunteered to return to Australia to coordinate.
“I loved that university but I needed to come home. My thinking and sense of humour had become Australian and that doesn’t translate well in the Midwest.”
With her contract coming to an end after several years heading Excelsia College, she began looking for another job that would keep her in Australia.
Around the same time she was sent an ad for the position at ACU’s Ballarat Aquinas campus, where she had long coveted a job.
“It’s a terrific opportunity to work for a university I wanted to work for, in regional Australia where I wanted to be,” she said.
Before coming to Ballarat for a job interview, she had only ever been to the city for a day.
“I’ve lived all my adult life in Australia. I had a lovely relationship with Indiana Wesleyan which was lovely, but there’s something about small rural towns in the American midwest. They are hospitable to visitors, but it’s different when you live there and I half expected to get that here and I didn’t.
“People are very warm, very welcoming and when I mentioned on some Facebook groups I’m on that I was moving to Ballarat, strangers reached out to me.”
After four months now in her role as campus head, she’s perfectly settled with an eye on the future.
“I would love to see the campus grow, bring new programs here and programs we haven’t historically thought about,” she said.
Health sciences, particularly nursing and paramedics, and education are the predominant courses on site.
"We need to connect ACU within the community. I want people to know this campus and they’re welcome to come in, come to our wonderful chapel and our university.”Professor Bridget Aitchison
“As needs of education change we’d like to be on the cutting edge of that, and I’d like to open us up to other areas of instruction and investigate what the region needs so we can grow and expand programs that genuinely serve western Victoria,” she said.
“Beyond that we need to connect ACU within the community. I want people to know this campus and they’re welcome to come in, come to our wonderful chapel and our university.”
Having experience with both the US and Australian higher education systems have given Professor Aitchison a unique view on the pros and cons of each, but the one thing that concerns her is the early age at which students need to choose their path.
“US undergraduates are based around liberal arts so they’re well versed across a whole range of fields, then they specialise in a major, where as here it’s three or four years but more focussed on a career whereas in the US it’s more focussed on critical thinking skills, how to acquire knowledge and being exposed to a broad range of things.
“I think an advantage to the undergraduate approach is if you don’t know what you want to do when you grow up there’s time to find it.
“The range of educational opportunities here in Australia is excellent but the age at which you have to decide is challenging.”
Strong pathways to further education are vital, whether it is TAFE and trades education or further study courses to prepare students for university who might need an extra hand to be ready.
“I really passionately believe in life long education, and the university system is not for everyone,” she said.
The quality of higher education in Australia means more overseas students are looking south.
“We are getting noticed in the world rankings. Students who would typically go to the US or UK are starting to move to Australia.