First-in-family Alumni Award winners demonstrate transformative power of education

2019 UNSW Alumni Award recipients demonstrate the transformative power of education 

UNSW Chancellor David Gonski at the Alumni Awards. Photo by:  Anna Kucera

UNSW Chancellor David Gonski speaking at the 47th annual UNSW Alumni Awards

The achievements of star alumni, many of whom were first in their families to attend university, were recognised at the 47th annual UNSW Alumni Awards.

CEO of Business Council of Australia Dr Jennifer Westacott AO; global human rights activist Dr Simon Adams; and ethical entrepreneur Brody Smith each acknowledged the profoundly life-shaping experience of attending UNSW in their formative years. 

A first-in-family graduate himself, UNSW President and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ian Jacobs says he knows from personal experience the opportunities a university degree can unlock.

“A university education can be a powerful leveller, yet still too many talented students miss out whether due to low socioeconomic background, educational disadvantage, or being based in regional or remote communities with limited access to higher education," said Professor Jacobs.

“UNSW is actively working to close the education gap as part of our ambitious 2025 Strategy to challenge inequality, so that more students can experience the benefits a UNSW education can provide, regardless of background or circumstances.”

Dr Jennifer Westacott AO received the 2019 Alumni Award for Business and acknowledged the critical role her UNSW education played in shaping her success.

UNSW President and Vice-Chancellor Ian Jacobs with Kua co-founder Brody Smith. Photo by: Anna Kucera

UNSW President and Vice-Chancellor Ian Jacobs with Kua co-founder Brody Smith. Photo by: Anna Kucera

“This university changed my life. It gave me a quest for knowledge, the capacity for critical thinking, and an inquiring mind which has stayed with me all my life. But mostly, it gave me confidence and self-belief. I’m really proud to receive this award on behalf of my work in the business community,” she said.

“As a kid aged 18, with no other person in their extended family ever having been to university, there is no greater gift an institution can give…other than confidence.”

Jennifer has served as CEO of the Business Council of Australia since 2011, championing a number of positive shifts through Australian industry such as social reforms to protect the rights of the LGBTQI community, safer working conditions, an increase in Newstart allowance for the unemployed, and influencing policy around company tax. 

In this role, she has long been an advocate for education as a fundamentally important role in Australian society, describing it as the single biggest platform to reduce inequality.

The 2019 Alumni Award for Social Impact & Public Policy went to Dr Simon Adams, a renowned human rights advocate who works with governments and the United Nations to advocate for the prevention of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. 

Based in New York, Simon is Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, which works with the UN Security Council, the Human Rights Council in Geneva and a network of activists across the globe to help protect human rights.

UNSW President and Vice-Chancellor Ian Jacobs at the 47th annual UNSW Alumni Awards. Photo by: Anna Kucera

UNSW President and Vice-Chancellor Ian Jacobs at the 47th annual UNSW Alumni Awards. Photo by: Anna Kucera

In his acceptance speech, Simon said he was deeply honoured to receive the award.

“UNSW played a huge, significant part of my life. I am a first generation university graduate, and I could not have gone to university without the support of UNSW and Austudy. This enabled me to equip myself with the skills that have been so essential to everything that I have done with my life since,” Simon said.

“I am a first-generation university graduate, and I could not have gone to university without the support of UNSW.”

As well as his education, meeting his wife with whom he now has three children, and making his first crucial connection with the importance of human rights advocacy, Simon said there is one other thing that has always inspired him from his time at UNSW.

“It doesn’t matter if I’m in the Congo or Cameroon, or Venezuela, or when I’m giving a speech at the United Nations, there is something that has always stuck with me that I first saw in Tharunka, the UNSW student magazine, all those years ago. It was this: Think fiercely, speak boldly, and spell correctly,” he said.

Brody Smith is at the tail-end of a UNSW Engineering degree, recognised this year in the Student Volunteer category for his efforts as the co-founder of Kua, a not-for-profit social impact startup. Kua, formerly known as “Bugisu”, sells ethically-sourced Ugandan coffee to Sydney workplaces; their service is zero-waste, supports Ugandan farmers, while 100% of profits are returned to fund women empowerment programs.

The 47th annual UNSW Alumni Awards. Photo by: Anna Kucera

The 47th annual UNSW Alumni Awards. Photo by: Anna Kucera

Brody grew up in Albury in New South Wales and was the first in his family to get an opportunity to go to university, as the recipient of a UNSW Rural Scholarship.

“In high school, I was a bit of a ratbag. So it’s without reservation that I say that university is something that has really changed me as a person,” Brody said.

“It’s without reservation that I say that university is something that has really changed me as a person.

“Thank you to the university and to Professor Hoffman for my nomination. I don’t feel like a volunteer, I just feel like a lucky student with a great team and an amazing amount of opportunities given to me.”

Brody also thanked the Kua team, made up of students across engineering, art, design and commerce.

“I’m really proud of all [Kua] has achieved in a really short amount of time, and I’m excited about the impact we’re helping to make. This award is very much all of ours.” Brody said.

“Education is our most valuable asset”

Speaking at the close of the Awards ceremony, UNSW President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Jacobs said that the diverse achievements of the award recipients showcased the power of education. 

“In our 70th year, UNSW is incredibly proud of all the students we have educated and the lives that have changed as a consequence,” said Professor Jacobs.

 “Those we celebrate tonight are an embodiment of what we hope to achieve as a university - to send our graduates out into the world with a sense of self, a sense of purpose, a strong social conscience, and a desire to serve.”

 A total of 13 winners were recognised this year for their outstanding contributions to society, following more than 100 nominations from the UNSW community. See the full list of 2019 Alumni Award Winners here.  

Read more about the 2019 Alumni Awards: Rebel Wilson, Kelvin Kong and Prue Watt to receive distinguished UNSW Alumni Award