The value of a Bachelor of Arts has been questioned in the media of late, thanks to changes to government funding models. So, this week we’ve gone in pursuit of Bendigo BA alumni who’ve forged fulfilling lives and careers post-uni, starting with much-loved local writer, John Holton.
What was your life like before uni John?
Life before uni was a mixed bag of lollies. I left school at 16 after limping my way through Year 11. My first job out of school was as a bank teller at the State Bank of Victoria. I hated it from day one, but stayed for six years. I resigned and travelled overseas for a year before returning home without any money and in need of a job. I worked as a storeman in an agricultural machinery warehouse, picking and packing tractor parts, driving a forklift, earning as much money as I could. I did this for a couple of years, but during the final year I started to feel myself being drawn back to education.
What motivated you to pursue a Bachelor of Arts, and why did you choose the Bendigo Campus?
I was reading a lot… exploring film and music and the arts more generally. By my mid-20s I was asking those big questions about meaning and existence… Who was I? Where did I belong? I’d heard about the Humanities degree at La Trobe Bendigo. It was the beginning of the 1990s and it had a huge reputation. By some miracle a storeman from Broadmeadows was accepted into the course. Studies in Western Traditions was the core subject and I majored in Literature and Philosophy.
How did it challenge you?
In every way possible. For one thing, I’d never written an essay in my life. I had to learn how to do that as I went along. Every lecture and tute opened my eyes to the world of ideas. Everything I’d grown up believing was challenged. Reading the classics of Russian and American Literature while studying Philosophy was mind blowing. Being able to see those philosophical ideas play out in narrative, but also apply them to my own experiences and relationships was an incredible way to learn and develop as a person. The lecturers challenged us to think outside the square… they liked it when we disagreed with them as long as our arguments were sound. The Arts was a melting pot—people of different ages (from 18 to 80), cultural backgrounds, religious beliefs, philosophical bents, but it felt like we were all there for similar reasons—that we were all searching for some sort of meaning.
What did you hope the degree would lead to? And how do you think it’s helped shape your life, your work and your writing?
I had no expectations of the degree leading to a ‘career’. After the three years of my undergraduate degree, I began an Honours year, but soon realised academia wasn’t for me. The degree had definitely fostered a love of writing, and certain lecturers had given me the confidence to think that I had some ability to string a sentence together, but I found the limitations of academic writing too stifling. Afterwards I worked as caretaker of a property, a landscape gardener, a worm farmer and a shop assistant while I studied a Diploma of Professional Writing at Bendigo TAFE.
And what about your writing career? Tell us more…
It has led on to a really interesting… yes, I’d almost call it a career. I wrote many short stories while I studied and worked, eventually publishing a couple of collections of stories as well as a kids’ chapter book. Over the past 20 years I’ve worked as a newspaper journalist, advertising copywriter, a senior editor at a publishing house, a freelance writer for magazines and online content, and more recently as a communications professional.
What are you doing now?
I’m currently the Communications Manager at Bendigo Senior Secondary College, the largest provider of VCE, VET and VCAL in Victoria. I’m responsible for content creation for our social media platforms, promotions and advertising, marketing, assisting with our alumni program, and generally chasing good news stories to promote the great work of our students and staff. Photography has become a big part of what I do, which is a nice link back to my La Trobe degree. I studied first year Photography as an elective way back in 1990.
Do you see a desire in BSSC students to study Arts?
BSSC has a really strong Humanities program, but sadly I don’t meet a lot of students who see value in the Arts as a long-term prospect. There’s such a strong push from schools/teachers/parents to focus on education as just a career pathway, rather than furthering knowledge and understanding (geez, I might really cop it for saying that). I think the Arts are very much seen as an ad-on these days… Arts/Law, Arts/Economics etc.
What is your advice to young people who wish to pursue a BA?
My advice to young people is always to pursue the thing that pushes their buttons. The Arts can lead you in so many directions. Studying Arts doesn’t exclude you from moving into other areas of study, or taking other career pathways at different stages of your life. But it will prepare you for the world—teach you to ask the right questions—make you think twice about taking everything at face value—help you discover what you love—foster a love of words and ideas that will be your best friend for the rest of your life… especially through a pandemic.