Inspiring tomorrow's leaders

The Faculty of Health Sciences has launched a leadership mentoring program for outstanding students.
By Alana Wulff
Alison Grech and Paula Caffrey

Alison Grech and Paula Caffrey

“I tend to stay within my comfort zone and do the same thing more than once, which is not always a good thing,” says Allison Grech, “so this experience has helped me be a bit clearer with how I think about my career.”

The experience Allison is referring to is the inaugural intake of the Leadership Mentoring Program devised by the Faculty of Health Sciences. Offered for the first time last year, the innovative program matched 12 ‘leadership material’ students with prominent professionals from the health, disability and community services sector. Nine of these 12 industry professionals are University of Sydney alumni.

To help inspire, encourage and support these future health leaders, the mentors were asked to guide final-year students through discussions about career progression, setting and achieving goals, developing and using support networks, and workplace dynamics. The mentors were senior, influential leaders in their field who understand the importance of mentoring.

Faculty of Health Sciences Deputy Dean Professor Michelle Lincoln found the process of choosing mentors and creating the program challenging but rewarding. “We approached eminent leaders in the health, disability and education sectors, in government positions and in non-government, and asked them if they’d be interested in mentoring our very best students,” she says. “The response was overwhelmingly positive.”

Having selected the mentors, the next step was finding the right students. Final year, undergraduate and postgraduate students were encouraged to apply if they could demonstrate leadership achievements in the faculty, the University or within their community.

“A lot of those who successfully applied had been leaders among their peers,” Lincoln says. “Some had been on University committees or led sporting groups, while some had been school captains.”

Students then got to meet and shadow their mentors three to four times over a three-month period. “We asked mentors to discuss their journey, the kinds of skills they’ve developed along the way, and to help students appreciate the kinds of leadership roles that are available in their sector,” says Lincoln.

Some of the mentors took their mentees to surprising places. “One of our students went up onto the 10-metre diving board with [Olympic diver] Matt Mitcham and talked to him about coaching leadership,” recalls Lincoln.

Allison Grech, who is undertaking a Bachelor of Health Sciences, says she found the program particularly helpful. As a mentor herself to first-year students in the Health Sciences faculty and a student ambassador for the University, Grech says that applying for a spot in the program was an easy decision for her.

She was paired with Paula Caffrey (BAppSc (SpeechPath) ’87)., the Chief Allied Health Officer at the Ministry of Health and Director of Allied Health for Sydney Local Health District. Grech says her time with Caffey opened her eyes to the overarching benefits of the program. “To have the opportunity to meet and spend time with someone in such a great position and who has had so many vaulable experiences in their career was amazing.

We asked mentors to discuss the kinds of skills they’ve developed and help students appreciate the kinds of leadership roles available in their sector.

“Paula helped me to think about the decisions I was making and how they would form the building blocks of my career. I got to know myself a little bit better and [think about] how I could best make decisions to make sure that I was both progressing in my career and being happy and fulfilled.”

While Grech and Caffrey completed numerous work-based activities, it was spending one-on-one time that Grech found most helpful. “The diversity of things Paula does was most surprising,” Grech says. “Her position is something that you don’t learn about necessarily and upper management positions aren’t understandable until you’re within the system. Getting an insight into that is really rare for a student.”

An important element of the experience was matching mentors and mentees across disciplines. “When you get into high level roles, you have to leave behind your disciplinary perspective because you’re leading everybody,” says Lincoln.

This was certainly the case with Grech and Caffrey. “Paula comes from a different background to me,” says Grech, “but we had similar personalities in a way that was a good match. It didn’t have to be exactly the same field to be really helpful.”

Caffrey agrees. “It was a good pairing because we’re not dissimilar type of people and that’s one of the strong things that came out. I could see some things that could be challenges for Allison in the future and areas that I have grappled with in my career and it was really good that we were able to explore those challenges.”

While the program is beneficial for students, Caffrey also found her time with Grech valuable. “I really enjoyed it,” she says. “It was an opportunity to work with a young person and to help them think about where they are now and where they want to go in the short and long term. It gave me an opportunity to reflect on my journey too. This is the future workforce and it’s really important that we invest in the careers of young people for the future of health care in Australia.”

Asked if she would come back for another round of the program, Caffrey was enthusiastic: “I’d definitely do it again. It was a really positive experience.”

Similarly, Grech’s advice to students interested in applying to the program was highly encouraging. “Go for it!” she says. “It was a great opportunity and I learned a lot. Just make sure you consider what you would like to achieve throughout the experience and what you could use those skills for in the future.”

This year’s program, with an expected intake of 20 students, will commence in August and run through to November. Having been so successful first time around, Lincoln is eager to welcome a new batch of students. “We’ve matched these students with wonderful leaders and they wouldn’t have had that opportunity otherwise,” she says. “Students can walk away from this having learned a lot.”

HOW TO ACHIEVE HEALTH REFORM: sydney.edu.au/news

VOLUNTEER AS A MENTOR: Email Maria Humphreys