From Norway to Wollongong, how Wenche Ommundsen discovered her passion
Outstanding literary scholar recognised for her generous leadership
Professor Wenche Ommundsen had a lot of possibilities open to her when she finished high school.
The avid reader considered a future in literary studies, but first, the world was calling.
So, when high school ended, she decided to pursue her lifelong desire to learn French, and leave her native Norway for Switzerland.
“I wanted to spend a year learning French,” says Professor Ommundsen. “After a year though, I thought, ‘I don’t want to go home, I want to stay’.”
Her boyfriend at the time was Swiss, so Professor Ommundsen enrolled at the University of Lausanne to study French and English, which she spoke fluently after a year spent on exchange in the United States as a teenager.
During this time, she studied “a lot of literature and history”, sparking the beginning of a long, distinguished career devoted to the fields of literary and cultural studies.
“After I finished my first degree, I decided to wanted to do a PhD in literature but I also wanted to make sure that I could get a job, so I studied a Diploma of Education. That’s what I realised that this is what I wanted to do.”
On Wednesday (28 April), Professor Ommundsen was recognised for her immense contribution to literary and cultural studies, as well as her generous mentorship of emerging researchers and students, at the University of Wollongong, with an Emeritus Professorship. It was an incredible honour for Professor Ommundsen, who says she was thrilled to have been recognised.
After working in Switzerland as a secondary teacher and university tutor, followed by a year in London completing a Masters degree in English literature, Professor Ommundsen once again relocated to another country.
“My life changed radically, once again, because of a personal relationship. I met my Australian husband in London, and he was moving home. I hadn’t heard much about Australia but they offered PhD scholarships, so I thought I would give it a try.
“I applied to four Melbourne universities and was lucky enough to be offered a place at all of them. I was on a tourist visa, which expired, so I was an illegal immigrant for a while, but by the time they caught up with me, I had married and was pregnant with my first baby, so was given a quick path to permanent residence. I have often thought about how different things were then: I was given a PhD scholarship and enrolled at the University of Melbourne without anybody enquiring about my residence status!”
Leaving Europe behind led Professor Ommundsen to uncover the riches that Australia and Asia had to offer when it came to literature. The move opened new cultural horizons and shifted her academic focus towards diverse, postcolonial and multicultural perspectives.
Professor Ommundsen began her academic career at Deakin University, where she delved into cultural studies and relations. In 2006, however, she made the decision to join the University of Wollongong to become a Professor of English Literatures. She initially said no to the offer, but after some consideration and deliberation with her husband and daughters, she changed her mind.
It was, Professor Ommundsen says, the best decision she could have made.
“I felt really supported and I just loved the campus,” she says.
“I came to a chair that had not been occupied for a while, so I was given a lot of opportunities to grow the role and the Faculty of Arts. My interest in literature grew exponentially.”
Professor Ommundsen’s contribution as a scholar and academic leader rapidly flourished. She became Associate Dean (Research and Graduate Studies) and then Dean of the Faculty of Arts, and during her tenure established a vibrant and forward-looking faculty, drove extensive curriculum reform, significantly grew enrolments and staff numbers, and advanced research capacity, scale and quality.
She also initiated and oversaw the construction of the Faculty Research Hub, and led greater internationalisation through strategic alliances and reframing of the curriculum and student experience.
Throughout her time at UOW, Professor Ommundsen was instrumental in forging greater international connections, particularly with universities in China. One of the highlights was getting to know the graduate students and emerging researchers with whom she was collaborating across borders.
“I was very involved in the Chinese Association for Australian Studies, and helped to set up an Australian Studies Centre at Wuhan University. The director is one of my former UOW PhD students, and he tells everyone he meets how wonderful Wollongong is.
“I’ve loved being a PhD supervisor, it has been one of the real highlights of my career. You learn as much as the student learns. I have been particularly involved in teaching international students, including in recent years a number of students from China and one from Iran. They are such a delight to work with.”
Professor Ommundsen’s investigations of Asian-Australian literature have been particularly significant, responsible for establishing a thriving sub-field. She has published six acclaimed books, a series of landmark edited collections on postcolonial and multicultural literature, and numerous influential book chapters, articles and reviews worldwide.
Professor Ommundsen won four ARC Discovery Grants for her work on Australian literature and the intersection of national and transnational forces in literary studies, and has been a principal collaborator in major international research collaborations. She was also a foundation member of the AustLit consortium and was instrumental in securing 13 ARC Infrastructure grants to construct the AustLit database – Australia’s largest digital humanities project.
Professor Ommundsen stepped down as Dean in 2013, before retiring from full-time work with UOW in 2015. During this period, her husband was very unwell, so Professor Ommundsen split her time between Melbourne and Wollongong. However, she maintained a part-time position, maintaining her role as a PhD supervisor, and her research interests.
She retired permanently from UOW in 2020, and is now based in Melbourne. But retirement does not mean she has stopped work altogether.
“I have just finished reading the very final draft of my last PhD student,” Professor Ommundsen says. “I still do some research and in the last few years, I have been co-publishing with my Chinese PhD students. I am currently also writing two papers on my own. Retirement has set me free to undertake research that I really want to do, at my own pace.”
In January 2020, Professor Ommundsen was offered a three-year position at Wuhan University in China. She is a Visiting Professor at the university and it was an opportunity she was interested in, until the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the city of Wuhan, followed by the rest of the world, only weeks later.
“I am hoping I’ll be able to go back one day,” she says. “The people in China are so incredible, they are generous and friendly. It has been an eye opener working alongside them. They have introduced me to another culture. It has given me a new lease on academic life.”
Although she is still keeping busy, the conferral of the Emeritus Professorship from UOW has given Professor Ommundsen cause to reflect on her career.
“I can’t say how lucky I have been in my career. I am very conscious of the fact that people coming out of a PhD now aren’t guaranteed a job. I had work all the time, and I feel very lucky for that.
“Retirement now means that I have had a soft landing. I am still researching, but I am able to read and enjoy all the things that I didn’t have the time to do when I was teaching and involved in university management.”