One of the cool things about running this website is being exposed to the diversity of women’s leadership in Australia. I love being able to profile women who are creating waves and making a difference in so many different fields.
Hannah Wandel is the founder and director of Country to Canberra – an innovative organisation that connects young women from rural and regional Australia to distinguished women leaders in our Nation’s Capital. Country to Canberra was founded with the support of a Great Ydeas grant from YWCA Canberra, and features an essay competition, following which three winners are brought to Canberra to meet leading women, get a special tour of Parliament House, and more.
I caught up with Hannah to pick her brain about this rather awesome project.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I grew up on a farm near Blyth in South Australia’s mid-north. To provide some fun facts: I was the only girl in my grade at primary school, the town’s population sits at 306, and it was the best upbringing I could’ve hoped for. I spent weekends playing sport with my sisters and reluctantly feeding our zoo full of animals (we madly had everything from a pony to axolotls). Blyth is a kind-spirited, charitable place that helped form my personal ethos toward community service.
Later, I studied law and media at university and worked as a newsreader at SAFM/Triple M in Adelaide. I was a journalist in Germany and spent time in America’s private sector before settling in Canberra.
When did you first start thinking about Country to Canberra? What drew you to the issue of supporting girls in regional areas?
Country to Canberra’s been percolating in my mind for years. Growing up rurally, I saw the obstacles faced by country students first-hand, and at age 15, I moved to Adelaide to attend boarding school. Here, I noticed education and career opportunity imbalances between the city and country. Accessing school subject preferences, work experience, and mentors seemed harder for my rural peers. Further, I noticed additional burdens that negatively impacted rural students, such as the emotional and financial stresses involved in moving away to attend university.
As time passed, I became increasingly passionate about promoting gender equality and bolstering female leadership. Currently, just over 30 percent of federal parliamentarians are female while Australia’s gender pay gap has risen to 18.2 percent. Pairing these gender issues with the aforementioned geographical hurdles, it’s clear that rural girls face increased challenges as they strive toward their goals. I was motivated to generate change, and decided to kick-start Country to Canberra.
Do you think we forget about young people in rural and regional areas? How do you think we can address this?
We must ensure regional youth participate in national discourse, and remember their unique standpoint when it comes to issues like higher education and access to technology. To facilitate this culture of inclusion, we should continue building relationships between the city and country, foster mutual understanding, and diminish out-dated stereotypes.
Crucially, rural students must be afforded equal career and education opportunities, and a key way to achieve this is through mentoring. Programs like Country to Canberra ensure rural girls can build wide career networks and learn about industries they aren’t exposed to in their local region. Having powerful mentors also allows young women to model leadership behaviour, garner confidence and go after their goals, whatever (or wherever) they are.
What was the most rewarding thing about Country to Canberra 2014?
Seeing the positive affect Country to Canberra’s ‘power trip’ had on the winners’ confidence and ambitions. It was amazing to see the girls’ excitement as they attended the ‘Powerful Women’s Breakfast,’ chatted with Ministers at our bipartisan lunch, and met Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. One of the girls hadn’t been on a plane before coming to the ACT, and none of them had been interviewed on TV. Knowing that we exposed them to new opportunities, connected them with role models and helped build their confidence was deeply rewarding. The girls have incredibly bright futures, and knowing Country to Canberra played a small part in their impending success is something I’ll always treasure.
Have you stayed in touch with the three winners? How did they feel about the experience?
We’ve definitely stayed in touch; in fact, Libby sent me a text yesterday! Country to Canberra is dedicated to creating a community for young rural women, and providing ongoing support as they forge ahead as leaders. Hannah, Libby and Vesna all wrote brilliant re-caps about their experiences for our blog, outlining how Country to Canberra inspired them. They’re all aiming high and I couldn’t be prouder.
What’s your day job? And what would be your dream job?
When I’m not running Country to Canberra, I work at the Department of Defence. My team is the conduit between the Minister for Defence’s Office and Air Force Headquarters, where I manage ministerial advice, strategy for Senate Estimates hearings and parliamentary business.
My dream job is to continue influencing policy on issues I’m passionate about. Perhaps that’ll mean diving into politics, NGOs or continuing in Government.
What are the plans for Country to Canberra in 2015?
It’ll be even bigger and better! I want to offer a ‘power trip’ to a girl from each state and territory, allowing more students to connect with powerful female executives and politicians in Canberra. As part of the prize, we’ll offer mentoring sessions with successful rural university students, creating a tangible and ongoing mentoring experience (plus, it’ll be a cool opportunity for Uni students who want to stay connected to regional Australia!) Lastly, I’m passionate about building an online community that allows rural teens to write about their experiences and generate increased gender equality discourse. In the next month, I’ll start seeking applications for regular bloggers to contribute to our site.
How can people stay in touch?
Check out our blog, learn about the competition or read the winning essays on our website.
We’re always looking for volunteers, bloggers and sponsors to help us foster our future female leaders, so I encourage anyone who is interested to reach out.