With a winning combination of personality, academic accomplishment, leadership skills, and a sense of adventure, Tierney Marey returns from four fabulous years in North Carolina as a fully-fledged Robbie!
What inspired you to apply for the Robertson Scholars Leadership Program?
The Robertson was a bit of surprise and a definite detour. I hadn’t even considered going to university in the United States. I found the Robertson Scholarship on UNSW’s website when I was looking for scholarships here. It grabbed my attention straight away, I had never seen an opportunity like it. Everything seemed too incredible to be true. So, I thought it was. I looked through the Robertson website and read alumni bios and was intimidated. I thought I wouldn’t have a chance so initially didn’t apply. The thought stayed though, niggling in my mind and, whilst this sounds silly, I had a dream whilst at Schoolies that I moved to North Carolina! I decided to apply but had such limited time left, maybe a week to pull together the whole application? I nearly didn’t complete it. I was there at nearly midnight the day before my birthday frantically trying to learn how to write U.S style college essays instead of living the post-HSC life! I did manage to finish the application and get my references in time, popped it in the post on my way to my 18th birthday!
How nervous were you when you farewelled your family at Sydney airport?
Ha! That’s not exactly how my family operates. My parents came along with me! We love to travel and I’m my parents' only child, so we made it into an adventure. Our first stop was New York City and I got to see Wicked on Broadway. We then travelled our way down to North Carolina for the Robertson Orientation camp. My parents stayed on for a while and explored the area. I was just so excited I didn’t have time to be nervous. I had this one moment when the plane took off and I had this flash of “what have I done?”, but that was it. I cried when they left and every time I said goodbye to them at airports across the world over the four years.
What do you wish that you had packed?
Warmer clothes and gumboots! I underestimated North Carolina’s winter and it was a bit colder than expected, though we had unusually cold winters. No one wears rainboots in Sydney, but they are a must for N.C (though buy them over there), I would also recommend good gloves with the built in digi-fingers – life savers! You’ll also need way less clothes than you think – people dress casually, with athletic wear being the go-to.
Socially, would you say there is something for everybody to take part in and feel welcome?
Yes. Duke and UNC do have different social scenes but no matter what I think it’s important to find your humans. I joined a sorority at Duke which I thought would be my main community. It wasn’t – I wound up with a close group of friends mainly from the Robertson program. The friends that I made during my time there are the kindest, most thoughtful, intelligent and awe-inspiring people I have ever met. Leaving them was heartbreaking but I’ve seen most of my closest friends already since graduation as they came or are coming to visit me back home. We have plans for a reunion next year.
Did you travel to other parts of America?
The hospitality and generosity that was shared with me by people in the States was so heart-warming. I had fellow students and their families mind my luggage over the summers, pick me up from the airport, take me out for dinner, invite me on their family holidays, take me home for Thanksgiving… you name it! I think I visited about ten states whilst I was there!
This incredible opportunity saw you at a U.S College with students from all over the world who were also part of the Robertson Scholars Leadership Program. How different were the students in your cohort?
That’s the best part of the Robertson Program and one I cannot stress enough. There isn’t a typical Robertson Scholar (you’ll hear that a lot!). The people in my cohort came from all over the world, from different cultural, religious, gender, sexuality, financial and linguistic backgrounds and each brought something to the table. In my cohort alone, we had an opera singer, a guy who started a successful business at around age 13, a coder/writer/actor…musicians, artists, journalists, social justice and global health advocates. It was phenomenal not only meeting all these incredible people but watching them grow and develop over the four years alongside you. Because we were all so different we also challenged and frustrated each other. That led to a lot of growth and learning within the community as well, something I think we continue to do as Alumni.
What was an unexpected highlight of the program?
The Robertson Staff. Hands down they are some of the most incredible people I have ever met. I expected that they would be these strict disciplinarians that we wouldn’t see much of unless we were in trouble. I couldn’t have been more wrong. That staff community took me in like family. They were my strongest supporters, cheerleaders, mentors and confidants. They got me through tough times and celebrated the good ones. I established strong bonds with several staff members, and I am so grateful to have been lucky enough to be under their care – because that’s what it felt like, endless care. I have maintained my connections with them and cannot wait to go back to visit!
Did you find your high school education in Australia had prepared you well for this journey on an academic level?
Yes. I was so scared that I wasn’t going to be able to keep up academically but that didn’t end up being a major problem. I did have to take general education classes that weren’t to my strengths –but felt challenged and energised by the classes I took for my major and minor. I failed a Spanish exam in my first year which at the time felt devastating but wound up studying abroad in Madrid and Chile and achieving a really high level of Spanish by the time I graduated.
Did you find the American approach compatible with the Australian approach to teaching and learning?
I can’t stress enough how valuable my American university education was. It’s something I am only fully starting to appreciate now. My classes were small, designed to foster critical thinking, debate and interaction with other students and staff. I was usually in classes of 30 students or less and many of my classes had 15 or fewer, which meant I got a lot of individualised attention and I was able to form strong bonds with my professors.
Being a Robbie means you divide your residential and study stay between both Duke and UNC. Did you find the experiences similar or completely different?
They were similar but both campuses have a different vibe. I lived on campus and shared a room for the beginning of my Duke experience and then again during my semester at UNC. I took advantage of the cross-campus opportunities and finished up with a minor in journalism from UNC which meant my semester at UNC wasn’t the only time I spent there. UNC is a little more casual, easy-going and more “southern” than Duke. I did have a choice between the two universities when I received the scholarship and really struggled to decide where to go without having visited or experienced either for myself. I went to Duke which suited me, and I am so glad that I got to experience UNC (and its delicious sandwiches and margaritas at TRU and frozen yoghurt at YoPo – can someone send that to me?!)
Can you describe some of the organised events for the Robbie’s during the 4 years in North Carolina as I assume there must be many?
Yes! There are so many great opportunities both voluntary and mandatory parts of the program that you can get involved with. My favourite was the Finalist Weekend. This is when all the high school students who have been selected as finalists for the program come onto campus to complete their final interviews. You get to host a finalist and then at the end of the weekend there is this big banquet with current students, alumni, staff and the finalists. Always a highlight.
I loved the Dinners for Eight and Coffees for Six. Covering certain topics, coffee meetings were an opportunity to engage in interesting discussion as were the lovely dinners with special guest speakers.
The final year of programming with the Robertson, including the ReThink program which launched my senior year (designed to challenge stereotypical thinking about gender – and likely to be expanded) was a wonderful way to reconnect with everyone. That was most obvious at the Robertson Reflect retreat where our whole class came together to reflect on our journey to date and look to the future.
What did you do for your summers?
Summers were my favourite part of the Robertson program. I enjoyed my Community Summer in Cleveland, Mississippi interning at a newspaper and building life changing friendships. I then spent my Explore Summer doing research in the U.S, England and Australia on women’s confidence in the elite higher education setting before finishing up with my Launch Summer working on my travel writing skills exploring what it is like to travel as a woman alone in South America, finally interning at the International Federation of Journalists in Sydney.
What advice would you give someone looking to apply?
Go for it! Virtually every Robertson scholar in my cohort didn’t expect to receive the scholarship but applied anyway. My mum gave me great advice when I was filling in my application, “You’re trying too hard. Just be you. Be honest”. Don’t worry about trying to be what they want – be authentic, that shines through and is way more attractive than someone trying to fit a mould.
I’m always happy to answer any questions – UNSW Scholarships can put you in touch with me!