Friends of the University inaugural winners

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

The Convocation Medal for Exceptional Contribution recognizes members of the university community or the wider community who have contributed to the University of Newcastle as an influencer, advocate, advisor or supporter. Nominees demonstrate an outstanding contribution to the University, enhancing its commitment to be a world-leading University for all of its regions through the values of excellence, equity, engagement and sustainability.

Judi and John pose on Don Morris walk

The Friends of the University connects the University of Newcastle to the wider community through fund-raising, community events, and by forming a bridge between the general public and the University’s social and academic life. Mr Paul Jeans, Chancellor of the University, believes “there could be no better example of the close relationship our University has with its community than the Friends. The Friends are “family” and we have benefited greatly from their tireless efforts and support over many years.”

The Friends has included many dedicated individuals across the forty years since its inception. There have been four Presidents - Ken Gordon, Keith Barbour, Vic Levi and now John McLaughlin. Angelique Carr from the Alumni Team sat down with John McLaughlin and Secretary Judi McLaughlin, to chat about how they became involved with the Friends and what receiving the inaugural Convocation Medal for Exceptional Contribution will mean to the Friends.

“When our eldest daughter started at the University in 1987 we learnt about a group called the Friends of the University, it was suggested parents might like to join. Very shortly after I had joined, I received a call asking if I would volunteer at the next Book Fair and that was the beginning of our involvement. John began volunteering in 1989.”

“It was a rewarding and interesting experience,” adds John. “Later we were asked to join the committee. The benefits the Friends were able to provide to the University in the early stages were associated with assets and accommodation and two perpetual Honours Scholarships were endowed.”

“Later, when the University became more established, the Friends transferred our attention to the student body. Most of our focus is now directed towards student scholarships, and students’ events for the students to participate in or to support their studies. We’ve branched into a lot of activities and projects over the years.”

“Over time the Friends have funded a diverse range of projects includingthe Don Morris Walk and the Pavilion down at Scobey’s Heath” adds Judi, “we’ve supported the University Choir, the International Time and Space Concerto – and our Art Fairs attracted many from the community to the University Gallery to purchase art which then led to the introduction of the Friends Margaret Olley Memorial Art Scholarship – this also led to the annual student acquisitive art prizes.”

“Lunch with a Writer, a subcommittee of the Friends, is a wonderful opportunity for the community to engage with well- known authors. This event is held three times a year”.

Since its beginning, the Friends have become the face of the University in the eyes of the Newcastle and Hunter community. This is partly because of the famous Book Fair which is held every two years in the Great Hall. This popular event now brings as many people onto the Callaghan campus as our graduation ceremonies.

“Last year was our most successful Book Fair having raised over $104,000 and is significant from the point of view of the community involvement. The Book Fair encourages vast numbers of the community onto the Callaghan Campus and afterwards many explore the campus.” says Judi.

“It’s a reason for the community to come onto campus, what they see and find when they get here is sometimes a surprise to a lot of people,” says John. “It's a good connection to make, both in the University’s interest and in the community. The community has now recognised what we’ve been able to do and we are now first choice for donations from private libraries and people reducing their book collection. “

It is often remarked that few other Australian universities can attract such an incredibly generous and talented pool of community volunteers over such an extensive and sustained period. Many of these people have had no formal experience with the University of Newcastle (or any other University), and yet have become tireless advocates for the institution. They actively contribute to fundraising activities and help support the pursuit of academic excellence through student scholarships, prizes and contributions to research projects.

Profits of the week-long Book Fair have funded such varied projects as the commissioning of the Beeston Tapestry and the installation of a new organ in the Great Hall, the Roof Top Garden of the Auchmuty Library and the Archives Room to honour the memory of Pat Flowers, who had made a huge contribution to the Friends and to the University. The Friends have also funded the publication of the Auchmuty Biography and Bushland Campus, a story of the flora and fauna of the campus, and many other projects.

More recently, the Friends have directed funds toward important research endeavours in supporting outstanding academic leaders such as Professor Julie Byles for her research on Ageing and Professor David Lubans for his research on Children's Health and Fitness. However, the Friends’ crowning achievement has been its significant contribution to the Student Scholarships and Prizes programme supported by over $1M in funds raised since the Friends inception in 1981.

This is something that Judi is particularly proud of. “The Friends now have nine perpetual scholarships, ranging across various disciplines. In the last few years we’ve endowed scholarships to faculties that often don’t receive a lot of assistance from other sources.

“The nine scholarships have been upgraded recently, they’ve doubled in value and that’s where our focus has been in the last several years.”

There are many other 'smaller acts of kindness' that have won the hearts of many and helped to benefit the wider community through a commitment to the University’s values of equity, excellence, engagement and sustainability. For example, on the last day of the biennial Book Fair, books are selected from the unsold stacks and donated to schools, libraries and communities throughout regional and remote parts of NSW.

“The awarding of the Inaugural Convocation Medal for exceptional contribution to the Friends of the University is certainly an honour. This is a recognition of the Friends’ volunteers who over many years have made contributions large and small but always in pursuit of the interests of the university community and their students”.

The spirit of the Friends of the University is one of tireless generosity, that supports the University of Newcastle’s commitment to being a world leading institution.

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