An unlikely pairing: Corey Payne and Lauren Pearce

25 June 2018

From L to R: Chris Bath, Dr George Peponis OAM, 2013 Future Direction Network Inaugural Scholarship recipients including Lauren Pearce (middle), Corey Payne and Former NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell.
From L to R: Chris Bath, Dr George Peponis OAM, 2013 Future Direction Network Inaugural Scholarship recipients including Lauren Pearce (middle), Corey Payne and Former NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell.

At first glance, it seems like an unlikely pairing. On the one hand, we have Lauren Pearce, a quick-witted young woman who made the Dean’s Excellence List (Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences), achieved First Class Honours in her BA, and is now working on a PhD on presentations of madness within Australian literature at the University of Sydney. On the other hand is Corey Payne, former CEO of the Penrith Panthers and professional NRL player for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, St George Illawarra Dragons and Wests Tigers. Appearances can be deceptive however, as the two people sitting in front of me obviously share a firm friendship.

Lauren and Corey met five years ago when Lauren was awarded one of the first scholarships from the Future Direction Network (FDN) which was founded by Corey himself. Since its inception in 2010, FDN has provided financial support, mentoring and career pathway planning to students from Sydney’s South West, where both Corey and Lauren grew up, to attend tertiary education.

Although he has always had a strong passion for sports, education always played a big part in Corey’s life.

“I was a kid who grew up in Western Sydney and neither of my parents had the opportunity to go to university. It just wasn’t something they had access to. They didn’t come from wealthy parents so they just wanted to go out and get jobs. But they were both adamant, mum especially, that all three of their kids would go to university.”

Like Corey, Lauren also graduated from the public schooling system.

“I’m the youngest of two in a family from Minto, and the first in my family to go to university. At the time, I’d been accepted into a Bachelor of Arts at The University of Sydney under the first E12 scholarship program. So I originally wasn’t going to apply for FDN as I already had a scholarship and I thought they’d have somebody better in mind.”

After some gentle prodding from her mother (at this point Lauren laughs and says, “Actually she said I was a bit of an idiot if I didn’t apply”), she applied for the FDN scholarship and won. As Lauren tells her story, I see that Corey is trying to mask the mirth in his eyes.

“A lot of the time, young people assume, ‘There’s someone who needs it more than me,’ or ‘There’s someone better than me,’ but half the trick is just having a go at it. Look, I always wanted to play football and that was it. Did I think when I was younger that I’d go to Sydney Uni, that I’d do a Masters, study overseas, set up and build a charity that’s sustainable? Absolutely not!”

The concept of “having a go” is something that carries through everything Corey and the FDN do.

“In sport, you have to be decisive. You have to back yourself. And that applies to anything. Because if you can’t back yourself, who else will? And that’s one of the things we always look for in our recipients - the ones that are gonna go for it.

“When we got to Lauren’s application, you could just see the passion for education she had. What we respected the most was that she came from a non-traditional background but still did well in her HSC. And that really ties in with the message FDN wants to send. It’s not about what you study; it’s about the act of studying. The degree isn’t the end in itself, it’s the journey and process that opens your mind to new things.”

Throughout her time at university, Lauren has embodied the values of FDN. Even though she lived in Minto, the tenacious student would travel three hours, five days a week to attend university. “Honestly,” says Lauren, “I was willing to travel because of the reputation of the English Department at Sydney University. We’ve got incredible world-class scholars here.”

Even when she was diagnosed with Bipolar Type 1, she still continued to push her boundaries.

“I took a semester off due to some serious mental health issues. It was so disruptive for me and even when I came back, I was still just finding my feet. I wasn’t sure if it was all going to work out in the end. After some encouragement for Corey, I ended up going overseas. I’d never been overseas at that point so it was a big deal. I remember that trip was really huge for me personally because I came back and I felt so focussed after that. It felt like I knew where I was going and where I wanted to be.”

Corey nods emphatically as he turns to Lauren. “I could tell you had this newfound sense of confidence and self-belief.”

That sense of assurance and inner strength has continued to serve Lauren well through her career, despite her habit of downplaying some amazing achievements.

“I’m now living my dream job doing research. And I just finished off my first conference presentation on Friday. And I’ve just been named a USYD Faculty of Arts Link Fellow. The FDN really helped me immensely. I mean, the money was great as I was travelling from Minto five days a week. But really, it was the support and knowing that my mentors and FDN family were behind me no matter what.”

As Corey turns to smile at Lauren like a proud big brother, I can see that FDN truly is a family.

“I am so proud of Lauren and everything she’s done, and it’s our goal at FDN to produce more thought-seeking people like her. Look, I know I said it before but it all comes down to having a go. I’ve failed many times myself but a chance meeting with Julia Gillard ended up with me walking away with half a million dollars for FDN. So don’t worry about being knocked back. Just go for it. What do you have to lose?