June 20, 2024
People & Places

High distinction

Transplanting your family and starting fresh in another city is a daunting proposition. But, as the University of Adelaide’s deputy vice-chancellor Dr Jessica Gallagher discovers, inviting your peers to lunch is a perfect ice breaker.

Jess and her husband Adam Simonis moved to Adelaide about 18 months ago.

A light drizzle has settled in on a cold and wintry Saturday afternoon at St Peters, reminding Queenslander Jessica Gallagher of the one thing she doesn’t love about Adelaide.

“The winters are bad – you can put that in print! I am acclimatising but, in my defence, Brisbane’s weather is hard to beat,” says Jess.

A bit of cold weather wasn’t enough to deter Jess from moving to Adelaide in 2021 when the University of Adelaide hired her for a newly created deputy vice-chancellor role. The key position oversees important portfolios such as industry partnerships, global engagement, and student recruitment.

After 15 years building her leadership career at The University of Queensland, Jess had to do some serious thinking about relocating with her husband, mining engineer Aaron Simonis, and their two young daughters Matilda and Emery.

Catered by East End Cellars, the delightful vegetarian menu included a first course of scorched leeks and handtied burrata.

“There is an energy and a vibrancy to this city, and you don’t get these opportunities very often, so I packed up the husband and kids and moved to sunny Adelaide,” says Jess. “We were leaving friends and family, but also our professional networks, which I think you can underestimate. We were starting from scratch.

“But we haven’t looked back. It sounds cliched but every day the university presents an opportunity to engage in deeply creative, challenging and novel work and I’m surrounded by talented and interesting colleagues.”

Moving to a new city was not a new challenge. Born in Far North Queensland, the second youngest of five children, Jess and her family moved every couple of years following her father’s work as a school principal.

Jess went to five primary schools and three high schools, but that didn’t stunt her educational growth.

Adelaide University deputy vice-chancellor (external engagement) Jessica Gallagher with guests Shirley Chung, Kiri Hagenus, Steve Larkin and Katrina Falkner.

“We were a close family, and I was one of those nerdy kids who really enjoyed going to school,” she says. “We lived and travelled overseas, and I learned quickly how to pack up and go, and to adjust. Maybe that helped me to develop an adventurous spirit.”

Jess studied at The University of Queensland where she completed a Bachelor of Arts and a PhD in Comparative Cultural Studies. During her PhD, she was a visiting research scholar at The Free University of Berlin, following an earlier stint in Germany where she had completed some of her undergraduate studies, immersed herself in German language and culture, while broadening her world view.

At school, Jess wasn’t particularly proficient in German but decided to challenge herself by jumping in the deep end. “If you’re going to be fluent you need to really immerse yourself in it,” she says.

“Global education programs can completely change your life. You gain a new perspective on society, careers and different approaches to the disciplines that you learn. Meanwhile, international students greatly enrich our campuses here because they bring their part of the world to Adelaide.”

Heritage carrots with spiced carrot puree and dukkha.

Today, Jess is hosting lunch for nine colleagues and industry friends whom she’s connected with since moving to Adelaide.

“I would put myself on the extrovert side of the scale, and I like meeting new people, but networking doesn’t come naturally; nobody really enjoys being the odd person in a room. I have tried to say, ‘yes’ to as many invitations and events as I can.”

Jess admits cooking is not her strong suit, so East End Cellars executive chef Josh Lansley is taking over the kitchen today. Jess is vegetarian, so Josh has planned a colourful vegetarian shared menu accompanied by wines produced by University of Adelaide alumni.

Discussion about the future of learning is particularly timely, given the announcement of the merger between the state’s two largest universities into the new Adelaide University.

Fellow University of Adelaide colleague Adam Gardnir gives cheers to the host.

“We have before us an incredibly unique opportunity. Working on the creation of a new South Australian university – that will modernise curriculum and online capability and provide greater equity of access – is incredibly exciting and I’m honoured to be able to play a part.”

Among the guests is Dr Catherine Grace, Director Space at South Australian Space Industry Centre. Jess and Catherine first met when NASA delegates visited Adelaide earlier this year.

Originally from Canada, Catherine studied medicine at the University of Warsaw, worked as a doctor in London before moving to Adelaide where she now works in the space industry.

“What has really surprised me about South Australia is how much it has to boast about being a world leader in space and defence,” says Catherine.

Thoughtful touches of florals and a menu make for an inviting welcome for today’s guests.

“There are exciting career opportunities and pathways in the space industry right here in Adelaide. You don’t need to go interstate or overseas. In fact, many people are moving to Adelaide to find meaningful, purpose-driven work.

“Adelaide’s best kept secrets are not only the city’s vibrancy, but that you can be part of a sector having a positive impact on the community here in Australia and around the world.”

Other guests include University of Adelaide professors Steve Larkin and Katrina Falkner, and fellow colleagues Shirley Chung, Martin McCarron and Adam Gardnir.

There is also Adelaide Children’s University managing director Kiri Hagenus and University Senior College principal Anita Zocchi.

Main course is complemented with a fresh and zesty salad of radicchio, witlof, citrus and fennel.

Guests mingle over drinks before first course hits the table: handtied burrata and scorched leeks with smoked hummus.

Steve, the University of Adelaide’s Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous Engagement, is also from interstate. Steve moved from Darwin to Adelaide 18 months ago and now leads the university in enhancing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education, research, and employment.

“Events like this help you get to know people on a personal level and there’s nothing to stop you becoming good friends. When you’re under crisis, it can really help if you’ve built those relationships,” says Steve.

Conversation shifts from how to improve access to study for regional and disadvantaged students, bridging the divide between universities and industries, and building better university communities.

It’s time for main course: fresh rigatoni with tomato, chilli, garlic and pecorino, accompanied by three colourful vegetarian side-dishes.

East End Cellars executive chef Josh Lansley serves up the fresh rigatoni.

Katrina – who is the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Science, Engineering and Technology – says that when she started lecturing, she first researched the science behind learning.

“I discovered that one of the most common reasons people left university was because they didn’t have someone to eat lunch with,” says Katrina. “Connections are fundamental to your learning journey.”

Martin, the university’s Executive Director of Human Experience, agrees. “Socialising is not a frivolous part of education; finding ways to make those connections and the opportunity for students to find their tribe is really important to enable their success in academia and life,” says Martin.

Artificial intelligence is another hot topic. Interpersonal skills are going to be critical for future leaders who will have to work in fast-evolving industries.

The chef garners praise from Anita Zocchi, Katrina Falkner, Steve Larkin and Kiri Hagenus.

“Going back to those foundational human skills will set you up in a world of work that is changing so rapidly,” says Martin. “No matter where you work, you need to work with people and some of the so-called soft skills, such as emotional intelligence and problem-solving, are now becoming key.

“The challenges of the future will be incredibly complex problems that don’t just require expertise in one area, but the ability to bring different expertise together. That’s why you need a university community.

“The social experience, the connectedness and sense of belonging is what sustains you through the challenge of education. It helps you get so much more out of it.”

Jess says there is a shortage of graduates in science and engineering fields which are screaming out for talent.

Jess makes a toast with the University of Adelaide’s Martin McCarron and Dr Catherine Grace from the South Australian Space Industry Centre.

“There’s a strong need in science and engineering – everybody wants graduates. We need more students, and we cannot produce enough graduates for the industries,” she says.

Many of the crowd today have their own families and share a common desire to see the best for their children’s futures. What is their advice for Year 11 and 12 students? Stick to the important subjects, follow your passions, and see learning as a long-term pursuit.

“There’s huge choice in terms of high school subjects these days; so much more than we ever had,” says Jess. “But if you can stay strong in English, keep up with maths, and choose a good science, you can do anything. It’s important not to drop the basics.”

The other takeaway from today’s discussion is that an in-person education, that is complemented by a comprehensive online offering, is the way of the future, especially as it means better access for students who might otherwise be excluded from a university education.

You can’t beat pasta on a wintry day. Josh’s fresh rigatoni with tomato, chilli, garlic and pecorino was a hit.

When the pandemic forced University of Adelaide students into remote learning, and international students to return overseas, there was uncertainty around whether things would return to normal.

Surprisingly, the University of Adelaide’s international student enrolments are really strong and demand is increasing with over 10,000 applications in for semester two of 2023.

“We were worried about getting all of our students back to campus, because for many years it had been very disrupted with online learning and competition from other markets has been fierce,” says Jess.

The table is silenced by the arrival of dessert: crema catalana and mandarin which Josh has caramelised with a blowtorch. After guests tuck into the final dish, there is all-round applause for the chef.

After an afternoon of great food, wine, and getting to know each other outside of the corporate world, it’s clear that while it might seem trivial, socialising is not only important for student success, but professional life too.

“One of the great things about trying something new is that you do get to meet all kinds of fun and interesting people,” says Jess


This article first appeared in the August 2023 issue of SALIFE magazine.


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