When Associate Professor Robbie Collins arrived at UOW Shoalhaven 15 years ago, she found a community hungry for a new narrative. As she steps down from the role, she reflects on her career, her achievements, and how far the Shoalhaven has come.
O n the eve of her retirement, Associate Professor Robbie Collins is in a reflective mood. It is a beautiful day in the Shoalhaven, and in her office, overlooking the quiet bushland campus she has managed for the better part of 15 years, Robbie is looking back on all she has achieved in her time at the University of Wollongong.
Robbie, who has now officially stepped down from her role as Head of UOW Shoalhaven, has come a long way in the past decade and a half, as has the campus, and surrounding community, which she tended to with the care and pride of a gardener. But she admits she had reservations before taking the plunge to move down south. That was until former UOW Vice-Chancellor Professor Gerard Sutton brought her to UOW Shoalhaven to gain an understanding of the task ahead.
“Fifteen years ago, I applied for the job, but I didn’t think I’d get it,” says Robbie, who originally planned to stay for three years. “It is a hard decision to be a regional campus person because you are gambling that you can still have an impact in the centre of the action, but you are also questioning, ‘Can I make a difference here?’
“I’d been in Wollongong as an academic, but when Gerard brought me down here to see the campus, my instinct was that there was another story here. That the Shoalhaven was a place that was ready for change, ready to do something different.”
In the past, the Shoalhaven has been a byword for negativity, a region beset with a perception problem. That is no longer the case. Robbie is exceptionally proud of all she is leaving behind. She planted the seeds of change, and during her tenure, with the support of the surrounding community and her exceptional staff, those seeds have grown into a thriving environment of learning.
UOW Shoalhaven has gone from strength to strength; it offers a range of degrees that reflect the needs of the region, and has built strong connections with Shoalhaven businesses and the community. The campus and student body has flourished. From the 100 students enrolled when Robbie started there are now more than 600 students and the campus offers 17 degrees and has an intricate relationship with the regional development processes of the Shoalhaven community.
On a wider level, Robbie has been at the forefront of a change in the greater community mindset, to demonstrate the opportunities that are available to Shoalhaven residents, right on their doorstep.
“We at UOW needed to find the other stories that could be played out and UOW’s community engagement strategies have been part of that process.” Robbie says. “UOW Shoalhaven was ripe for change and it was important for the campus to have its own identity rather than simply a satellite of the Wollongong campus. People here felt that the centre of the university was somewhere else. So the team at Shoalhaven set out to establish our identity as part of UOW.”
It is clear that Robbie is passionate about the Shoalhaven, a region she loves and wants to see succeed.
“I set about helping people find a way to perceive the positives that were happening in the Shoalhaven. I wanted to create a community of learners both on the campus and within the community, breaching the idea that university was only for the gifted ones. We reached out and we opened the campus to all comers, developing links to schools and business and community so that everyone was welcomed.”
Slowly but surely that shift in the Shoalhaven’s identity has been taking place. Robbie considers this among her greatest achievements, and believes the campus has been a fundamental element in development in the region.
“The Shoalhaven Professional Business Association now sees the campus as a core link for their mentor program, and it has become a resource in the community for professional development. The Shoalhaven is changing rapidly and we have been up to our eyeballs in that process in the time I’ve been here. The University is one of the drivers of regional development, and that’s a space I’ve been active in. I’m more of a ‘pracademic’ than an academic in that space.”
Steven Bayer, President of the Shoalhaven Professional Business Association, says UOW Shoalhaven, with Robbie at the helm, has been a force for incredible optimism in the community.
“At all times, Robbie has championed the Shoalhaven and worked tirelessly to ensure that its residents are afforded as much educational opportunity as possible. She has been a shining light of positivity,” Mr Bayer says. “Robbie has been an icon in the Shoalhaven to all of us who work towards the region being recognised as a beautiful place to live and work.”
It is a sentiment echoed by Grant Gleeson, Director of Legal Services for the Office of Local Government in Nowra.
“Ideas are the stuff that will save us,” Mr Gleeson says, of Robbie’s impact on the region. “Effort, innovation, capital and risk will surely be the fulcrum, but the solutions to our ills begin with the conception of the idea. That has been Robbie’s gift, to fertilise the field of ideas. Without Robbie, the farmland for ideas here in the Shoalhaven would have been reabsorbed into the bushland.”
Working on a small campus, you have no choice but to be involved in the community. It has been like plonking your hand in a bucket of water and watching all the ripples happen.Associate Professor Robbie Collins
Robbie cites the School of Medicine at UOW Shoalhaven and MIND the GaP as two major projects that reflect the new direction for the region as well as the strong links between the University and the local community.
“This is a fabulous community to work with. If you link up with the people who are driving change and development here, there’s a lot of support. The medical school grew out of our work with local medicos, who said ‘let’s get this going’,” she says. “Our social work degree was the same. Professor John Steele, the former Executive Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, came down here and talked with people in the community, and saw the need for a degree in social work.”
Throughout her time, Robbie has loved being able to work with students and staff members to create a positive work and study environment. Originally a drama graduate – she completed a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Drama and Theatre at UOW, and has worked in community theatre – Robbie believes her background in theatre has proved most helpful in tackling the intricacies and complexities of campus life.
“My drama and theatre background has been very important to me as a manager,” she says. “I’ve worked in schools, in business, in academia, and my knowledge of drama practice has proved the most helpful. Improvisation has an overarching idea of accepting all offers so you bring immediacy and freshness to challenges.”
Robbie stresses that it is a team effort; in addition to the many talented staff at UOW Shoalhaven, Robbie has always been willing to pitch in to get things done. As we chat, students and staff wander into her office, to ask her opinion or simply say hello. It is clear she is hands on in her approach. In 2013, she was thrilled to win the Vice Chancellor’s Award for Community Engagement.
“When they rang me to tell me I had won the award, I was up a tree hanging a campus sign for a community event,” Robbie laughs. “I had to tell the person on the phone to wait while I climbed down. That award was a real thrill. Working on a small campus, you have no choice but to be involved in the community. It has been like plonking your hand in a bucket of water and watching all the ripples happen.”
Prior to taking on the role, Robbie had a rich and varied work history, reflecting the many passions that have driven her over the course of her working life. In addition to her time in the theatre, she has been a teacher, a careers counsellor, worked for not-for-profits organisations, and at TAFE. Robbie has a Master of Business Administration from UOW, and has loved being able to apply her studies to her role. She is a creative thinker and sees herself as a mentor to the professional staff who have helped create UOW Shoalhaven.
“My pleasure as a leader isn’t just in ticking boxes, my pleasure is in getting people to own their own jobs and see how their jobs fit within the strategy you’ve created. I want to find a way for everyone to feel they are a leader of their situation. When someone is getting pleasure out of their work, it really helps them to get pleasure out of the rest of their lives.”
So what does retirement hold for Robbie? The short answer: family, friends, horses, and bees.
“I spent years socialising most nights of the week for the role, so I want to spend time with my family now. I’m planning on visiting my daughter, who lives in the United States,” Robbie says. “I want to ride my horses, tend to my garden. And I’m a beekeeper so I want to spend time with my bees. They offer much for you to think about in terms of sustainable development, so who knows what those thoughts will bring.”
She leaves behind a campus, and a community, invigorated by the possibilities of education.