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Start somewhere: from the unknown to the unexpected

From studying law to writing cookbooks. From the Air Force to sensory labs. From building boats to advocating for rural health.

From pets, to pallet jacks, to the morgue, and onwards.

Increasing numbers of VCE students are opting for unscored ATARs due to uncertainty from interrupted and delayed career exploration in the last few years.

Some of the most successful and well-rounded people on Earth had no idea where they were going when they started their career journey. Some of them still don’t.

But they all chose to start somewhere.

Here are some of their stories.

Midway through Year 12, Jacinta Orillo left school for a traineeship that never eventuated.

‘I had been working part-time in a vet clinic during high school. That was my dream career. But they kept putting off my traineeship due to staff shortage… it was going to be 2-3 years until I could start the course.’

After finishing Year 12 at TAFE as a 19-year-old, Jacinta initially pursued a career in the police force, before starting a receptionist job at an electrical wholesaler. To help the business receive orders, she acquired her forklift license and started unloading deliveries in the warehouse.

Then, she moved in to the head office of a major petroleum company, scheduling bitumen trucks on the road and staying on call 24/7 to receive requests from oil refineries.

Things changed when Jacinta and her husband Resti welcomed their daughter.

'When I had my daughter, it changed my perspective on my career.'

Jacinta Orillo,
Health professional and educator

Jacinta grew up in the baby boomer generation where mums were meant to be mums in the traditional sense, and weren’t expected to go back to work.

‘But I wanted to prove to my daughter that you can do rewarding and impactful work for the community… and healthcare is brilliant for that. It felt meaningful.’

Jacinta started working for the infectious diseases centre in Melbourne, receiving specimens in their microbiology lab, before moving into a hospital closer to home.

And through a series of coincidental conversations, ended up working in their mortuary.

Rather than being a confronting experience, Jacinta found it to be an empowering opportunity to make a difference.

'I remember speaking to my manager, saying, "they have no voice." We are their voice, we are their caretaker. I can only do so much, until they leave the hospital, but at least I know they got care right up until the end.'

Jacinta Orillo,
Health professional and educator

‘And one day, one of my team member’s fathers passed away and came through the morgue. And it gave her peace. She said she new that her father was in good hands.’

Although Jacinta wasn’t sure which way her career would go, she was glad she found her way there.

When he was a child, Russell Keast’s grandmother would take him along to her hospital job. In the afternoons, he’d join sixty-something ‘Chef’ in the kitchen, and would be tasked with stirring onions.

‘To have that responsibility, so young, in a commercial kitchen, I thought, ‘this is great’, slowly watching these onions brown and cook.’

Fast forward twelve years later, and Russell was at a crossroads.

'I had finished high school in New Zealand, and it was a case of "now what?". I thought I’d go to uni, do business and law like my mates were.'

Russell Keast,
Director, CASS Food Research Centre

So he decided to drop out, and chase a career in cooking.

Somewhere that would offer excellent training.

With a worldly reputation.

The New Zealand Air Force.

After the initial selection process, Russell learnt the ‘soldier-type stuff’, then settled in to a three-year cooking program.

Emerging from a four-year stint in the army as a fully qualified chef, Russell entered the world of hospitality, sharpening his skills as well as his knives. After a few years, Russell got the itch to try something new.

‘I thought, “I have a good food based knowledge.” So if I go to uni, learn food science, nutrition, I could be a good food writer.’

Moving to Otago to study food science, Russell had to work hard to catch up on the science and chemistry, but was driven by a love of what he was doing.

After completing his honors, he began a PhD on fermentation, brewing, and the flavour of beer. And then, an opportunity in Philadelphia as a postdoctorate in sensory science. This was about taste, smell and flavour, not related to products, but humans: “why do we experience things in the way we do?

Russell has since moved to Melbourne, as the director of the CASS Food Research Centre. And when he reflects on his journey, he explains how each unplanned twist helped him grow.

'From the air force, into kitchens in hospitality, to Otago, to Philly, to CASS. The common theme throughout is food, but it’s completely different skills at different levels.'

Russell Keast,
Director, CASS Food Research Centre

The air force taught him practical cooking knowledge. University complemented this with theoretical understandings of physics, chemistry, and food science. Research took Russell to fermentation and flavour analysis, and then his postdoctorate work helped him understand how humans respond (and why some of us are hardwired to hate coriander).

It’s all technically food, but it has been a long time cooking.

In Melanie Persson’s own words, she was doing what was expected of her. She moved through high school with good marks, then into university to study an undergraduate degree that she had always aspired to: law.

But a few years in, Melanie developed a sense of dread.

‘Over time, I learned I wasn’t interested in law… There was a sense of loss and confusion, because I wanted to be a lawyer since I was eight or nine years old.’

To compound matters, Melanie was diagnosed with coeliac disease, dramatically limiting what she could eat. This was intensified by her work in hospitality, surrounded by food all day, every day.

'Suddenly, my career aspirations were gone. I had to manage my coeliac disease, which changed my personal life. So it became a question of, ‘what do I want to do?’ And I had no idea!'

Melanie Persson,
Writer, PhD candidate

Luckily, to wrap up her undergraduate degree, Melanie had dipped her toe into writing units.

‘I was tossing up getting in to the writing space, looking at internship opportunities. Most of these wanted backgrounds that I didn’t have, because I’d only discovered this direction recently.

‘My marks hadn’t been great in undergrad, I couldn’t walk in to a course, and I didn’t have what I needed for an internship. I was completely out of my depth!’

Born and raised in Perth, Melanie threw her belongings on a plane and moved to the East Coast, looking for more opportunities with the written word. Whilst working as a nanny to make ends meet, Melanie continued to put herself out there by attending interviews – and finding failure.

‘It was so competitive, even for unpaid work. But in those interviews, I was able to chat to people in the field I wanted to enter, who had done their masters and PhDs, and even though it was a nerve-wracking environment, I had something in common.’

The next step was what Melanie described as ‘a soft opening.’

‘I chose to study a Graduate Certificate in Literature online. If I liked it, I would continue in to the master’s.’

It was the perfect fit. ‘It turns out I am better online than I am in person!’

After a few years struggling to find her passion, Melanie has settled in to a good groove both personally and professionally.

Combining her love of food with her natural communication skills, she has grown an online audience by posting tasty, coeliac-friendly recipies on Instagram.

Following a stint on MasterChef, she is preparing for the impending release of her own cookbook. And she is completing her PhD on anthropomorphism in children’s literature, looking at why we attribute human qualities to inanimate objects and what purpose that serves.

Melanie is an overnight success. All it took was years of hard work, determination, and discovering what she found compelling.

In Year 11, Vin Versace had seen enough of high school.

‘Nothing bad had happened, but nothing good had happened. I walked out, and it was serendipitous. Before I knew it, I was sweeping floors in a factory at 16.’

Any job was a good job in Mount Gambier at the time. So, when Vin got the opportunity for an apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker, he completed it early. After a stint in Adelaide as a boat builder, Vin returned to Mount Gambier, where he balanced work with sitting tests to get into university.

Vin received a few university offers.

And then realised he had no idea what he actually wanted to do.

In the end, he admitted to himself that ‘[he’d] always loved the ocean…’

This led Vin from South Australia to the rural Victorian town of Warrnambool, where he was to study marine science.

'I remember getting my books. I moved on campus, opened my biology book, thought, "Yeah, okay." Geography, "Yeah, alright." Then I opened the chemistry book and thought, ‘Oh, no, I’ve made a huge mistake… I can’t do this.’ I can remember the panic.'

Vincent Versace,
Director, Deakin Rural Health

But while Vin couldn’t control his initial terror, he could control how hard he buckled down.

His work ethic had taken him from sweeping floors, to building cabinets, to studying marine science. And to this day, he doesn’t value any one job over another.

‘You’re simply developing transferable skills. And if your attitude is to work hard and apply yourself, you can transfer into nearly any profession.’

In Vin’s honours year, he specialised in population genetics. This led to some incredible opportunities, including a vacation scholarship at CSIRO.

‘I radio tracked fish at Rocklands Reservoir, I went to Tassie to extract ancient DNA from fish scales, then started my PhD, which included going to the Netherlands and a Fellowship at Cornell University.’

And from then on, Vin keeps his skills sharp with a mentality of life-long learning.

‘I did my CERT III in cabinetmaking because I had to. Years later, I did my coxswains certificate through TAFE because it was the perfect way for me to develop those skills. And in 2020, I did my CERT IV in building and construction, because it keeps me engaged and helps me learn.’

Vin is currently the Director at Deakin Rural Health, which attracts, trains and retains health professionals in regional areas. Their aim is to make sure the health workforce is well distributed across Australia.

'I grew up in rural Australia, and I’m proud to say I’ve forged my entire career out here. As a kid, I didn’t know these jobs existed.'

Vincent Versace,
Director, Deakin Rural Health

For him, it is about providing opportunities for country kids to chase their careers. ‘I believe ability is well spread out across the population, that ability just needs opportunity.

‘You can study health science, you can study construction, there’s architecture. We live in an information age. There’s very little to stop you from learning about anything, anywhere.’

For Vin, Russell, Melanie and Jacinta, the journey has made them who they are today.

Despite not knowing their destination, or having a completely different destination in mind, they got started and waded in to the wonderful unknown.

Melanie’s advice? ‘Don’t feel locked in by your ATAR. I thought I was on a very specific path. But that changed pretty dramatically, very quickly. And here I am!’

Russell admits, ‘I never planned my career, but I found out what I liked, and kept going. I still don’t know what I want to be.’

When Jacinta reflects on when she left highschool early, she recalls a comment her VCE coordinator made.

‘He was quite rude. He said, “you’ve just thrown away a very good opportunity in life.”

‘And I realise now that he was trying to scare me. And VCE students don’t need to be scared away from making a choice, because they are forced to make choices about every day about their futures.

‘And any given choice might make them fall, but it might make them fly. And a lot of them fly.’

Good luck.

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