Eleanor Armstrong began her ANU journey thinking she would major in philosophy and spend all her time in the library reading books, because she was “very much that kind of person at high school”.
She grew up in the inner-north of Sydney, with a Canberran father who studied science and law at ANU. What sold her on coming to ANU though was the Bachelor of Philosophy (PhB) – which, despite the name, is actually a unique research-intensive program for high achieving students (with an ATAR requirement of 99 alongside academic references).
“Being able to do a deep dive in subjects I loved, and also to have at the same time academic rigour, was a big drawing point for me,” says Eleanor. “My choice was definitely cemented when I came to Open Day in Year 12 and I could see myself on campus as much as in the classroom.”
Eleanor would spend the next five years on campus, doing a Diploma of Languages alongside the PhB. She majored in sociology for her Honours year of the PhB, and adds that she also did a minor (in History). Furthermore, across the PhB, it is typical do a minimum of four research projects.
“It was a mixture of design-your-own assessment and interaction one-on-one with an academic,” Eleanor explains, “So it was a really wonderful opportunity to pursue my passions, but also get to know what life was like in the research community at the University beyond undergraduate class work.”
In her second year, Eleanor’s first project was on the social construction of autism as a disorder, extending upon her studies in Health Sociology. Her second project involved looking at the relationship between sport, mostly notably cricket, and the Australian identity. That was on the back of the Populism in Media, Culture and Society course.
After that, she did an internship through the Australian National Internships Program, based at the ANU, at what was then called the Department of Education and Training. Within the student wellbeing team there, she looked at cyber-bullying prevention and education programs for the 8-14 year old cohort.
Also in her third, she took part in the Sociology Research Internship program. Her project was completed with ANU sociologist and snake-catcher Dr Gavin Smith, and it examined the socio-cultural significance of snakes in Australia. In her fifth year, Eleanor would go on to be supervised by Dr Smith for her Honours thesis on environmental sociology. But before that, in her fourth, she completed a research project called Working Like Dogs: Canine Bodies in Military Spaces which saw her once again grapple with the field of Human-Animal Relations. This passion for examining how humans interact with animals was ignited when she took an anthropology elective course on a whim, taught by primatologist Dr Rebecca Hendershott.
Eleanor spent her first semester of 2019 at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, facilitated by ANU Global Programs. The majority of her courses were in French, which Eleanor describes as “really challenging”. Her minor in the Diploma of Languages was advanced French, and by the time her program ended, she had attained near fluency. She studied introductory German as well through the Diploma, which also came in handy in Switzerland.
Surprisingly, in and around her full load of studies, Eleanor found time to participate in clubs and societies, do a litany of internships, accumulate 100 hours of volunteer service at ANU by the end of her fourth year, write and edit for the student newspaper Woroni and a number of other on-campus publications, and do part-time work – including as a CASS and ANU Student Ambassador, and calling alumni during the ANU Giving annual campaign.
“I received a merit-based scholarship called the National University Scholarship, and that was a huge part of me being able to participate in campus life,” says Eleanor. “Had I not received that, I know for sure I would have needed to be working a lot more than I already was to cover living expenses. If you are lucky enough to have the means to get involved, that's a major factor in being able to contribute.”
The financial support Eleanor received instilled in her the desire to give back to the ANU – as well as to pay it forward. Every year for four years, during the ANU Giving campaign, Eleanor phoned alumni and major figures in the University and community and encouraged them to support scholarships and grants across a range of equity and student wellbeing causes.
“I think ANU is really great in enabling students who care about passions or other people – or often that’s both – to put in the work and be able to support their fellow students or future students,” says Eleanor.
For Eleanor, “it’s about lifting others up broadly as well as those one-on-one micro-interactions that you have with different people. It's making little differences here and there that you hope add up to something that comes even close to the support that the university gave you.”
“I'm always conscious about how lucky I was to come here to ANU. And if I can give little bits of that back any way I can, I absolutely will.”
She laughs; corrects herself. “Oh, I can't anymore, I've left. But that was what I felt during my time there.”
What Eleanor is referring to is that she actually graduated earlier this year – with a 6.9 GPA for her PhB and 6.4 GPA for her Diploma of Languages, to boot. Just before she finished up, she landed another achievement, winning the 2020 Tillyard Prize: the oldest and most prestigious award given to an Honours degree student.
“I was just really grateful to my nominees and my referees, and how much they mentored me but also how much they saw in me,” Eleanor says.
“I know that there's also a huge community of people for whom it's about the people you meet, the things you do outside of the classroom. And that was a big part of my ANU journey as well. So to have that kind of support and recognition of that was a huge honour.”
With Eleanor’s five year-long ANU journey at its end, a new chapter in her life is now beginning: as an Associate Consultant with the Boston Consulting Group.
“It will be interesting to go into an environment where all the skills you've been preparing for your entire education are put to the test,” Eleanor says. “I think it'll be a nice combination of the skills I developed in sociology and in CASS more broadly, but also the kind of real-world experience I got on campus and beyond during my ANU years.”
She adds some final reflections on her time here, that it’s all been quite ‘unexpected’.
“I had all these opportunities that I didn’t see coming,” she says. “If you’d have told me at the start of 2016 that I’d do a thesis on community conservation… I don’t think I would have believed you. So, I was really lucky that there were lots of opportunities and I was enabled to take them.”
“In a nutshell,” Eleanor says, “don’t think you can plan your entire uni degree. I mean, yes – talk to student admin. But you never know what’s going to happen at ANU.”
Written by Evana Ho / ANU