I bombed the HSC and now I’m a CEO

By Susannah Le Bron

As HSC students receive their results this week it’s that moment where they think, “This is it. Everyone is watching me”. But I urge students and parents to remember – the HSC doesn’t define you. I bombed out in my HSC but am now the new CEO of youth organisation YMCA NSW. After school, my journey took me from being a waitress to running hospitality at the Opera House at the age of 21. I went on to leading thousands of staff at QANTAS and Sydney Trains without a university degree. And now I am passionate about ensuring young people don’t fall through the gaps as I so easily could have done.

In my HSC year I wasn’t homeless but I didn’t have a permanent home. My parents divorced when I was in year 5 and my dad was one of the few men of that era who pursued full custody. But when he moved to Queensland with his new wife and my siblings when I was in year 12, I didn’t want to go. I was a bit of a gypsy, moving with my backpack between three houses – my mum’s with her partner and new baby at Camden, my nanna’s at Putney and my boyfriend’s family home at Liverpool. I had to manage logistics every day about where I needed to be, and I don’t ever remember being given any money from my parents. I had two part-time jobs – in a cake shop and a manchester store – but I look back now and think: “How did I financially survive?”

There are countless students who did it tough this past year – due to challenging home lives, health issues or feeling the enormous pressure of the HSC. For many, the results recognise the hard work they’ve put in and possibly cements a decision they have been building up to. But for some young people, it might be a set-back because the results have not enabled them to take the path they were planning.

And you know what, maybe they could have done better, as I could have done – a constant theme on my report cards over the years. But it is a chapter that is now closed. If you can’t follow plan A, what’s your plan B? After the celebrations or commiserations are over, many young people feel lost after school. They are used to having structure, and their friends on tap – probably not realising how beneficial that was at the time. The future can seem daunting.

I think we are very fortunate in Australia as there are many supportive environments available, including YMCA and our partner organisations. I encourage young people to find somewhere they can connect with others and feel they belong. Get involved with the local community and see if you can learn something new, or even just distract yourself for a little while before making those next decisions. Don’t dwell on what’s past – make a plan. Take some time to recuperate, if that’s what you need. Maybe get a casual job or find out what TAFE really is all about because you may have been dismissive of that option.

I’m not devaluing university but I know it wasn’t right for me at the time and it’s not right for many young people. I don’t think we can be critics of one way or the other. I encourage big corporations to reach out to that Year 12 student who is passionate about their field but didn’t get the marks. Why not give him or her an opportunity to see what it’s like in your environment and perhaps explore pathways to further study. There are progressive corporations that are keen on taking students without a university degree, such as PricewaterhouseCoopers, which allow school leavers to get a business diploma while they work alongside graduate employees in core company areas.

At YMCA NSW almost half of our 1800 workforce at our recreation centres, out-of-school hours care services, camping sites and community programs are under the age of 25. We have many opportunities to gain qualifications while on the job. There’s certainly no right or wrong path to take. At 47, with two children aged 12 and 14, I’ve just finished my first four core subjects for my MBA. It has taken me four years.

I would never have been able to juggle work and university and take on rewarding leadership roles if it wasn’t for my husband Bradley – that same boyfriend from back in Year 12. He has taken the lion’s share of primary care of our children over the years and works part-time as a postie, a job he has loved for 23 years. A few weeks ago I was going through some old photos with my brother and I stumbled upon a picture of me in a YMCA hat and T-shirt. It then dawned on me: I went to YMCA Camp Yarramundi in Year Four, the only camp I ever attended. Who would have thought, 37 years later, I would become CEO of that organisation.

Susannah Le Bron joined YMCA NSW as CEO in September this year.

Article and image courtesy of Sydney Morning Herald

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