COLUMNIST, THE GUARDIAN
Bachelor of Creative Arts (Creative Writing) (Hons) 2000
Bachelor of Arts 2002
From a young age, renowned writer and social commentator Van Badham saw it as unfair that her working-class parents did not have the opportunity of higher education.
If you have an education you can make your own vocational choices and that's the beginning of freedom
“My parents inspired me … they were highly intelligent people but they were denied the chance to go to university,” Van said.
Her mum’s secret dream of becoming a paediatrician went unrealised; instead, her family arranged for her to leave school at 15 and find paying work as a stenographer and office assistant. It was a similar case for Van’s dad; a career in the gaming industry was as close as he got to his ambition to become a sports journalist. His own father had died of tuberculosis when he was 3 - there was no other choice for his struggling family but for him to work as soon as he could.
“If you have an education you can make your own vocational choices and that’s the beginning of freedom,” Van said.
Making choices and taking risks is something Van has done for much of her life.
A ferociously talented woman of action, Van has used her writing, and her voice, to address social injustices – as an award-winning playwright and most recently as a columnist for Guardian Australia and as a novelist.
She has taken Malcolm Turnbull to task as a panellist on the ABC’s Q&A show and was recognised at the 2015 Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence Awards in the category of Culture. Prolific on Twitter, Van still finds time to teach, mentor and do public speaking.
Van said her intellectual boldness evolved while studying at the University of Wollongong.
“I learnt how to learn at the University of Wollongong – and that’s a life-long skill,” she said.
“It taught me to be independent and to be a critical thinker.
“Universities are transformative – every person deserves that transformative experience.”
And it wasn’t just the University that Van believes contributed to her intellectual boldness – it was also the city of Wollongong.
Van said living away from home at UOW student accommodation Kooloobong helped her build independence, and added she is disappointed that many students these days choose to commute instead.
“Learning to be a playwright, I had great support from the local community and I was embraced as one of their own,” she said.
“The culture of the city has always been proudly quirky and experimental, and as a local you have a devoted audience. Wollongong’s theatrical community was a good incubator for me.”
The support base Van grew up with in Wollongong gave her confidence to pursue a global audience. She said Wollongong was a place where she felt comfortable to make mistakes and move on from them.
She keeps in regular contact with other UOW alumni – many who have also gone on to great success themselves. Van’s frequent travels to the US allow her to catch up with one who is now an independent film director in Los Angeles and another who is a singer and actor in Nashville.
But as a teen, Van never imagined she would be successful and jetting around the world. The high-school years were a struggle and Van admits to having to “hang in there” to finish, assuming at the time the only option for her, as a creative artist, was to attend TAFE.
It was an open day at Newtown High School that steered her to UOW.
“In a regional university I was encouraged to not just be recruited into the establishment … I was encouraged to be intellectually self-reliant,” she said of what sets UOW apart from other universities.
“I use those skills every day – of independent thinking, critical research and expert communication.”
While studying at UOW, Van published poetry and short fiction, as well as writing student dramas. She won the campus stand-up comedy competition, the Des Davis award for Drama and the Philip Larkin Poetry Prize. Over a long career in student politics, she was elected to the student council many times.
She was editor of student newspaper, Tertangala, Activities Officer for the SRC, and was also Women’s Officer. She was the first Wollongong student to become a President of the National Union of Students.
Van’s theatre work gained professional notice when she undertook a student exchange to the University of Sheffield, UK in 2001.
The Crucible Theatre in Sheffield discovered Van’s work. Her plays were soon critically acclaimed at the 2002 and 2003 Edinburgh Fringe Festivals. She wrote for the BBC, was resident at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art for two years and then appointed literary manager of London’s Finborough Theatre in 2009, a job that led her to relocate to Melbourne to become artistic associate at the Malthouse Theatre.
Van is still based in Melbourne these days and has won three Premier’s awards for her theatre work. She has been a columnist with Guardian Australia for three years and is writing a series of novels.
During her time in Wollongong, Van was also involved in student recruitment work at UOW’s Discovery Weeks. She recalls her advice to students every time was: “Do a degree you’re passionate about.” That is still her advice to students these days.
“I’m a very proud alumna … I’ve received an exceptional education and it’s taken me around the world,” she said.
Van visited UOW in August, 2015 to speak about the changing face of student activism at the University’s 40th anniversary celebrations, looking back at her student activist days at the University [pictured above].
The only regret Van has with her university studies is that she is yet to complete a PhD, which was deferred due to illness. “But there’s always a chance,” she said.
With all the success to date, one can’t help but feel it won’t be long before the PhD is added to the list of achievements.