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Fierce Female: Dr Brenda Service

There is no fiercer female than Mama Concierge. My siblings and I have often marvelled how mum would hold down a full time job, while raising five kids and then completing a Doctorate.

All those late nights working until the wee hours to complete University assignments while the kids were sound asleep paid off. Now in her sixties, Mum’s career opportunities are looking brighter than ever.

As the Acting Associate Dean, Faculty of Education, Victoria University in Wellington, she divides her time between lecturing, researching and and supervising students. 

Her story is one I’ve wanted to share for a long time. Enjoy!

You were born into a strict Catholic family, raised in a small town in New Zealand and with little encouragement to pursue an University education, and have gone onto complete your Doctorate, now lecturing at the University of Wellington. What were career choices were like back in the 60’s?

Growing up, I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t catholic. I certainly didn’t know any mothers who worked. It was just a completely different world.

I was taught by nuns growing up. They were very strict. You were never encouraged to have an opinion and I didn’t know anyone who went to University. We were taught that University was only for ‘very rich and very clever’ people. None of our parents had been to University.

My parents said they’d let me stay at high school for four year, but really, it was quite indulgent, because “what was the point.” My mother wasn’t keen on books being in the house either as they gathered dust.

Back then, the choice was really be a typist, a teacher or a nurse. I told my father I wanted to be a teacher. He said, “you’ll either be an old maid, or end up being a bossy person.”

What made you pursue further education?

I suppose there was always something in me that wanted despite my surroundings. On the West Coast, there weren’t high educational rates. There weren’t role models. Nuns were the strongest women I had knew. I think, in hindsight, it was more naivety over ambition, to be honest.

But I’d always had a go at things, or put myself forward for opportunities. When I was sixteen, I entered and won a speech competition to go to Australia. It was a big deal got me in the paper. In our town, that was like going to the moon.

When I was 16, I went to Christchurch Teachers College to get a primary trained teacher's certificate. My parents were puzzled but accepted it.

Something we’ve talked about is nature over nurture, and whether we’re born with certain qualities or whether they’re encouraged. In your example, it’s pretty fair to say you weren’t overtly encouraged to pursue any form of further education. What’s your take on that?

I think you’ve got certain qualities in you. At teachers college, I was elected President of the Hostel. People said I had leadership qualities, and I didn’t really know what they were talking about. When I look back, I can see times where those ‘qualities’ came out, even when I didn’t know what they were.

We’re somewhat similar in that we are both introvert / extroverts. Has that changed over time as you’ve furthered your education or moved up the ranks?

There’s something in me that likes to be challenged. I’ll back out of a social engagement but I’ll never back out of a terrifying speaking engagement.

I’ve always felt comfortable to lead a crowd, or to debate or lecture, but I’ve become more aware of ‘forced intimacies’ as I’ve become older. I very much value my close friends but like to maintain professional boundaries otherwise.  It requires a bit of effort to not feel exhausted if you’ve had a long day lecturing. If I’m asked to go to drinks following a big event, or speech where I’ve exerted myself, I’ll often escape out the back door when no one is looking. I have to recover from all that exposure.

As I get older I notice I’m becoming more  introverted. I wrote my thesis in pockets of complete isolation in rural Dunedin. I can’t imagine everyone enjoying the idea of that!

I think it’s interesting as you’ve kind of upskilled as you’ve gone along. What did those career jumps look like?

When I look back I’m driven about curiosity, then I go and find out more exactly how to do it.

When I was at school, no one encouraged me to go to University, and I could barely spell it. It terrified me - but eventually I did it.

When I was in primary school  teaching, I didn't have a degree and felt the lack of it - I had just had two years primary teaching up my sleeve. Then I applied to be fast tracked into masters and they let me in.

When I was offered op to go to secondary school and help profoundly deaf students, I noticed there were other students struggling. So, I suggested they might consider others also needed assistance. And because I was primary trained, I had the skills. That led to international and ESOL students. So, I did a few papers and learnt about how to approach that, too.

When I was offered the Head of Department, I thought, ‘here is my chance’, even though I didn’t know what the job really meant. (I did my post grad while I was working. I remember sitting in a Senior Management team meeting my leg wouldn’t stop shaking. I had gotten to bed at 4.30am after delivering an assignment. It never occurred to me to take a day off).

Then a role came up at a low decile school in the region. A friend said ‘you should apply for that role because it’s in the senior management team’. Everyone said ‘Bren, you are mad’. Not one person encouraged me. But I just had this feeling, ‘yes’, I could do it.

Then the schools merged. The principal said, ‘you should apply for deputy principal role’. So I did. A few years into that role, I could see that Government cuts were going to put my role at risk. So I thought I better get a Doctorate, so I can be a lecturer.

In each case I’ve gone to do the job before I had the credentials. I suppose my ethos was, ‘I think I can do it’, then go and get the paper to back it up.

Something you’ve mentioned many times over the course of your career is Impostor Syndrome. Do you think by now, with your PhD, you might be over that?

[Laughs] I don’t think it ever goes away. I mean, members of parliament even talk about it. In some part I think it’s a personality trait.

In my industry, the more credentials you have you feel you belong in certain areas - but in others, not. In most cases in my career, I was always the least qualified person in the room. Like I didn’t belong. I guess I always felt ‘I could do it’, - I just wanted the piece of paper that would qualify that for other people.

But certainly, many times during my Doctorate, I thought ‘I don’t know how to do this. This is too hard. Maybe I’ve reached my peak. I believe I can do anything but perhaps I have reached my limit’ [laughs].

And I remember on one occasion someone saying to me "well what’s the point of a Doctorate? What will you do with it, Brenda?”

It is a mixed bag of emotions and sleepless nights getting it right. I do sometimes wonder if the panicked feeling of ‘getting found out’ is worth it [laughs].

I suppose no matter how nervous, scared, or ‘impostor-like’ I ever felt at work, I never let on. I always said yes to opportunities.

Opportunities all come down to relationships and whether people perceive you as a leader, a problem solver, or a complainer. I never complained at work. Always kept it positive.

You talk about the concept that ‘intelligence is incremental’; that intelligence is not fixed. Would you say that’s been the case in your career?

I think you can never make any judgements at a certain age or stage that something won’t happen in future. We evolve in quite unexpected ways as human beings. My evolution has been stimulated by curiosity to go and find out more about something.

We can often believe we have a certain amount of intelligence, that it is fixed, as opposed to continuing to grow your understanding and beliefs. If you are motivated enough, you can learn anything.

We are always developing intellectually. A lot of us, inside, secretly do suspect that our intelligence  is fixed. That the brain is at full capacity. But we are all capable of incremental learning.

Ideas like ‘I don’t have a maths brain’ is rubbish. If you were motivated enough, you could learn maths. All of us can be, given the right environment - but we have to want it badly enough.

Something I love about you is that you’ll never really retire (unless it’s in a library). What do your career options look like now?

There is this ageist attitude often generated by the over sixties themselves. I hear many of a ‘certain age’ talk about retiring because ‘we can’t do that anymore’.

My thought is this. A few years ago I didn’t know how to use video conferencing software. And now I am one of the only lecturers using it to connect with students. You don’t ever give up on learning.

I think it’s like Gran [mother in law], who even in her nineties,  always kept a bottle of tabasco in her handbag in case the food was too boring when she went out. It was her attitude that kept her young.

Connect with Brenda on LinkedIn.