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2009 graduation ceremony address – Sam Walsh

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Good evening Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

It is a great pleasure to give the Occasional Address at this evening’s graduation ceremony, and I would like to thank Curtin University for inviting me to speak.

I would also like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, the Whadjuk people of the Nyungar nation.

It is hard to find a more inspiring event than a university graduation ceremony. It is a celebration of educational achievement that honours you – the graduands – as well as your families and friends, and the university staff that helped make it all possible. I know that some of you will be feeling that this evening closes the door on one chapter in your life.

And while this is true, it also heralds the start of something new: the opening of a door to a world of new possibilities, and the chance to explore and challenge yourselves in new ways.

Some of you may have your immediate future already mapped out. You might already have a job or be journeying along a defined career path. Others might be oscillating between options, perhaps considering travel or deciding where best to apply your knowledge and talents.

Whatever your situation, there is no set formula for success.

However, there is a truism that I believe you should all apply to your future: be flexible and be open to change; be ready and willing to alter your career mid-course, and be willing to stray from your comfort zone as often as you can.

The world in which we live today is not the same world of many of our parents or grandparents: job security is an oxymoron; a “career for life” is almost unheard of, and having multiple skills and broad interests is more likely to be your future pathway.

Each career opportunity you explore will provide further options; taking you in directions you might never have originally considered. These new experiences will not only enrich your work history and skill set but will further develop you as a person.

As Nobel literature prize winner André Gide once said “You can never seek new horizons if you don’t lose sight of the shore”.

Once upon a time, long ago, I too, was a university graduate … of course, it was back in the ’60s, when being bad meant doing something evil when surfing was done on waves and not the net, and if someone said “ipod” you’d think of whales or peas!

After I left university I joined General Motors Holden, and at the time I was pretty sure that the rest of my life would be in the car industry. If you had said to me then that in 2009 I would be running the world’s second largest iron ore business I would have scratched my head and wondered; Gee, how is this going to come to pass?

But I am glad to say that throughout the course of my career I have learned the value of adapting, of being open to new challenges, and of being prepared to lose sight of the shore. My career continues to be highly satisfying and incredibly rewarding … although it’s not without its share of challenges.

Certainly the global events of the past six months have created new challenges but also new opportunities. I have often been asked about these turbulent economic times and their impact on a company such as Rio Tinto, and society more broadly. And as new graduates, I am sure that you too have been considering the impact that the current economic environment will have on your career prospects.

And whilst some of what is happening now is unprecedented, it is important to remember that this is part of the long-term economic cycle. The sun will shine again just as surely as we will see downturns again in our lifetime. And in this environment, it is more important than ever to be flexible in your approach, innovative about your career and bold and passionate in your pursuit of opportunities.

Remember: some of the most successful companies in the world were born at the bottom of the economic cycle. History shows that times of crisis often breed extreme creativity, entrepreneurship and innovation.

As graduates of Curtin, you are better placed than most to respond and adapt to these tough times. Curtin graduates are highly respected and sought-after all over the world.

At Rio Tinto, many of our employees are Curtin graduates. In fact, during the summer break, we’ve had 42 Curtin students working with us as vacation students, representing almost half of our student intake.

A company as diverse as Rio Tinto has people from all over the world and from all walks of life working with us – aside from engineers, geologists, metallurgists, and scientists, we also have IT specialists, health and safety experts, journalists, environmentalists and marketing specialists. Curtin produces graduates with all of these skill sets.

When we hire new people to join the Rio Tinto team, we will look for well-rounded individuals who are focused on adding value and who demonstrate leadership potential and vision. And we use this same holistic approach in determining how Rio Tinto relates to our communities in ensuring that we are a responsible and proactive corporate citizen.

Most of you will know of our commitment to the communities in which we operate – a deep and genuine commitment that includes initiatives such as the employment of Indigenous people and my business is the largest employer of aboriginals in Western Australia. We also provide financial and in-kind support to townships and community organizations. We work with governments and NGOs to enhance the lives of Australian people through a broad range of long-term social and economic programmes.

Attributes such as leadership and vision, together with community service, are some of the values that this university has drawn from John Curtin, and it is this that makes Curtin graduates stand out from the pack.

John Curtin is remembered for his remarkable courage and leadership during World War II. While he was able to adapt and respond to the critical issues at hand, he also never lost sight of the bigger picture. Famously Prime Minister John Curtin said “look ever forward…for it, the past should be but a preparation for greater days to be”.

Over the Australia Day weekend I was speaking with our current Prime Minister, and in the course of our conversation I mentioned to him that in coming weeks I would be addressing new graduates such as you. The conversation moved on, but he brought me back to you, our future leaders, and his response to me was thoughtful and clear. He asked me to pass on his best wishes to each of you and he asked me to impress upon you your role in delivering the country’s future. He and I are counting on you.

I am presenting you with a huge challenge and a huge opportunity and I am sure that you will rise to meet this.

Tonight is the beginning of a new chapter for you, but you must be mindful that while this chapter of study might be concluding, the learning process will never, ever stop.

I remember very clearly a day for me that had similar import to tonight’s occasion. It was roughly 35 years ago, when, and this is hard to believe, I was an afro-headed, bearded post graduate student on an overseas fellowship with General Motors.

At Kettering University, in Michigan, 60 Fellowship holders, from all corners of the globe, were addressed by a Kettering alumnus, Ivan Deveson AO, who went on to become Lord Mayor of Melbourne. As we were all silently congratulating ourselves on achieving the major milestone of being awarded a prestigious fellowship – and possibly considering that it was time to ease off a bit – Ivan brought us back to earth with a jolt. He made it clear that although we all had thought that we had made it, or had it made, instead we had only just begun a life long journey of self development.

Your journey of learning has also just begun, and I hope that it is one that continues throughout your life and brings you many rewards, both tangible and intangible.

Congratulations on your fine achievement tonight. I know that your family, friends and lecturers are proud to see you graduating here tonight.

I have no doubt that no matter what you do or who you will become, you will achieve great things; demonstrating leadership and vision and a capacity to adapt and grow.

Thank you.