Pete Russell is a Manager of International Development for a consultancy based in Canberra, Australia. He graduated from the University of New England (UNE) in 2008 with a Bachelor of Urban and Regional Planning, before continuing his studies with a Master of Planning and Management of Natural Hazards. We asked him about his time at university, what it was like to find work as a graduate and his volunteer work in the Philippines. This is his story.

What made you choose UNE?

“I would like to think it more or less chose me! I left high school and I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with my life. I moved to Sydney because I had family there, picked up a job and worked for a year, sort of like a ‘gap year’. I worked with someone who suggested I look into Urban & Regional Planning and at the time UNE was one of few offering the course.  While there were options in Sydney, having grown up in the country I  wanted to get out of the city and I guess what attracted me to UNE was the full experience of a residential campus and the additional sense of community that would come with that.

“Fortunately, I received early entry into UNE and that was it and commenced a Bachelor of Urban and Regional Planning in 2005. I have been at UNE as a full-time student, living on campus within the college system and also as an External Masters student.”

The course you studied, how was that?

“Fantastic lecturers and an open and friendly class group. I’d say first up that one of the benefits of my undergrad with UNE is that the class sizes are smaller and you benefit from this with face-to-face time with your lecturers that themselves have time to give you honest feedback and advice. I enjoyed the face-to-face small study groups too which went for the duration of my degree. Even if some of my peers weren’t on campus, we were still close and even now we professionally have that connection.”

Did you have any challenges at the beginning

“My college created a lot of structure which was really good, but I guess the challenge was getting used to living with so many people! The college I lived at had over 200 people and I had just been living in an apartment in Sydney before so it did take a little bit of adjusting. I had been working full time too so adjusting to the relative ‘freedom’ and lectures and writing assignments took some getting used to. I found UNE to be a very social place and I’ve found that the friends I made then, have remained my friends for life. Country universities can be like that and those social skills and relating to different people are now a key part of working life. First to admit I made mistakes and learning experiences about myself and the world and that’s all part of the experience. I feel like UNE chose me as there was a range of sporting activities (including rugby!), live music and just general college life. I loved being part of the community.”

Do you find the differences between Bachelor Degree and Master Degree? How does the Bachelor help you? 

“Well, there were a few aspects. A Masters requires a lot more in-depth research for everything. It requires an implied level of analytical thinking and stronger references. My Bachelors at UNE prepared me for my Masters in that respect with the fundamentals for the next stage. What also really helped was that I was able to draw on my own previous professional experience developed in between the Bachelors and Masters. This was important to me as I could implement and refer to my previous practices and even now, I’ll look back and apply these strategies. 

“My masters in Planning and Natural Hazards Management covered cyclones, tsunamis, volcanoes, bushfires etc and how they will impact on the built environment in the future and then what policy interventions are needed to mitigate these impacts. Some of the lecturers I had for my undergrad were there for my Master’s so that immediately made it easier. I could just call up my lecturers to have a quick chat and they’d always be there. You rarely have that level of engagement and this is one of the best experiences of my time at UNE. Reflecting on the Master’s degree, it was great how the practical side of things has aligned itself to my working life. I finished my masters 18 months ago and I use it every single day at work- it’s a mindset. It’s not like reading an academic journal, it’s something I carry with me and I take it to meetings and overseas into the Pacific.”

Why do you choose to do two degrees from the same University?

“I knew that I needed to do a Masters degree after finishing my volunteering assignment. Unfortunately, a Bachelor’s degree doesn’t mean much in international development in the area that I am working in –  you really do need some kind of Masters degree- but really one of the motivations to travel and work overseas was to seek ‘answers’, when really I came back with more ‘questions’ if that makes sense. A Masters degree was a way of satisfying that thirst for knowledge. When it came to deciding where to do my Masters, UNE was an easy choice. I knew who and what I was dealing with, how the course would be delivered, who the lecturers were. I think also, a sense of loyalty and familiarity helped too. I’m thrilled with my decision though, returning to UNE was the right one.”

What kind of support and opportunities did you get from UNE?

“Opportunities and support were abundant. There was a great sense of community and leadership opportunities within the College as well as additional academic support. There was also a variety of competitions between colleges for everything from music and theatre to sport. It wasn’t just all about studying. I was fortunate enough to be the Vice President of the college in 2007 which was a great honour and I feel like all these capabilities are what have developed me into a relatively well-rounded person today. All of these skills contributed to my career and they were developed (and even started to develop) during my time at UNE. 

“In particular I loved how we weren’t just in a college bubble. We interacted with the Armidale community frequently. My college was aligned to the local rugby team, the Armidale Blues so we meet real people in Armidale who would discuss their lives and welcomed us into their community with open arms. It was a holistic experience and I felt very connected.”