Nicki Patten has recently joined the Province’s education ministry in the role of Executive Director of Jesuit Education Australia (JEA)
In the interview below, Nicki speaks about her career in law and not-for profit organisations, her experiences in the Xavier College community, and how she envisions JEA will continue to ‘journey with youth’ now and into the future.
Tell us about your career journey so far.
I started my career as a lawyer working in intellectual property in private practice and then moved to an in-house legal job at a major retailer. After 15 years or so in this world, I started to question the end result of my work and the outcomes of the organisations I worked for. What was their purpose? How was I working towards something bigger?
After much soul-searching I made the jump into the not-for-profit world with World Vision. This job brought me into the sphere of foreign aid and development, gave the opportunity to travel and, most importantly, connected me with a meaningful mission: ‘for every child, life in all its fullness: for every heart, the will to make it so.’
After seven years, I left World Vision to take on roles in other community services organisations, and then joined the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy Australia and Papua New Guinea. This was an opportunity to see my life come full circle as I worked to enhance governance practices within a Catholic organisation and use my skills as a lay person to support and advise the Sisters.
Are there any particular experiences from your journey that still influence your work today?
The experience I most remember was while working in Cambodia in Phnom Penh with urban communities at threat of eviction. I had joined an evaluation team to conduct a multi-stakeholder review of a five-year program which World Vision had been running.
Many children in this region were diverted from education to earn money for their families, to marry early or to take on family responsibilities because one or both of their parents had died. In the central district of Phnom Penh, I met a family whose father told me that the key to his children’s future lay in education. He said that if he became aware of anyone in the community who was not sending their child to school, he personally went to them and ensured that they kept their children in school.
This man’s dignity and earnest belief in education as a means out of poverty was an inspiration to me and something I remember very clearly to this day.
Tell us about your connection to the Jesuits.
My personal connection to the Jesuits was initially through my son who attended Xavier College in Melbourne for his high school years. I became involved in the Xavier Social Justice Network and enjoyed my time on this committee as it worked towards strengthening volunteering and advocacy in a local way.
The Jesuit model of education resonated with me as it placed God at the heart of all things and recognised that the gifts given to each student were unique and matured over time through careful teaching, guidance and reflection.
What I am growing to love about all of our schools is the sense of community and identity that is both strong and enduring.
What drew you to this position with the Society of Jesus?
My personal connection with Jesuit education as a parent and college community member, as well as the opportunity to lead Jesuit Education Australia in a broader way and serve the mission at a national level. I am most excited to visit each of the education ministries and meet our leaders on boards, in teaching and in mission.
My focus at this early stage is deep and active listening. In this sense I recently came across this quote from St Ignatius:
‘Be slow to speak, and only after having first listened quietly, so that you may understand the meaning, leanings, and wishes of those who do speak. Thus you will better know when to speak and when to be silent.’
This is hopefully going to guide me over the next few months as I put on my ‘learning hat’ to understand both what has gone before and the challenges of the future.
What is your perspective on the Universal Apostolic Preference ‘journeying with youth’?
The phrase ‘journeying with youth’ conjures up for me the sense of movement forward and companionship. How do we support our youth, directing and guiding them without taking away their agency and independence to make their own decisions? How does a closeness to God and a knowledge of self combine to help our youth find their individual path in the world today?
My experience with youth leaders is of their vibrancy, energy, fun and dedication to their cause. It is heartening to know that a Jesuit education gives our youth the confidence to develop ideas and concepts, the skills to put words to those ideas and then to be people of action beyond their immediate spheres of influence.
I look forward to being of service to the mission of JEA and to working in close collaboration with our colleges to foster and strengthen their ethos and identity, drawing on the Jesuit and Ignatian tradition. The size, scale and reach of our education ministries also fill me with optimism and hope for the future and I hope I can contribute to this in a lasting way.