They topped the HSC decades ago. Here’s where they are now

By Millie Muroi and Billie Eder

HSC high-achievers through the years.

When Joy Ho used her HSC marks in French and English to get into medicine 40 years ago, she had no idea her interest in languages and literature would help advance the treatment of blood diseases across the world.

“The HSC is only the beginning of another stage,” the former Loretto Convent Kirribilli music captain said.

“There’s so many opportunities, so I would encourage young people to keep their eyes open and never be discouraged.”

Now, she is the director of hematology at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, and has contributed to the field internationally, developing various tests and advancing immunotherapy techniques for blood diseases.

On Thursday, 67,000 students from the class of 2022 will receive their HSC results, joining a long list of those who came before them.

The Herald tracked down high-achieving students from 10, 20, 30 and 40 years ago to see where they are now and what advice they have for students about to embark on their journey after high school.

1982: Forty years ago

While Ho was completing her HSC in the 1980s, the medical profession was grappling with the transmission of potentially deadly blood-borne viruses, such as hepatitis and HIV.

Her work in the field over the past decades has been crucial in bringing therapies to Australian patients, and is now crucial in bringing new treatments.

Joy Ho was music captain and scored highest in French and English during her HSC, but always knew she wanted to go into medicine.

“Bringing really novel therapies such as CAR T-cell therapy to Australia is so important,” she said. “It’s really very exciting.”

The therapy involves using genetically engineered cells to produce a receptor that is used in immunotherapy for cancers and autoimmune diseases.

‘The HSC is only the beginning of another stage.’

But her high school interests remain with her today.

“I look after patients in New Caledonia, so I get lots of opportunities to practice my French” she said.

“Having a wide range of interests has made me more whole as a person but also enhances our ability to work well and engage with people.”

Her advice for HSC graduates is to remain optimistic.

Paul Fletcher completed his HSC the same year – a time when personal computers were a novel invention and mobile phones were a foreign concept. But they soon became more widespread, and he became more involved in the space.

Fletcher served as communications minister until May this year. After a career across consultancy, law and management, the federal MP said politics and media were early interests.

Paul Fletcher was federal communications minister until May this year.Credit:Philip Wayne Lock and Alex Ellinghausen

“I was very interested in politics during high school,” he said. “And while I was at business school in New York, my eyes were opened to the exciting sector of telecommunications.”

He remembers going to the movies with a friend in the lead-up to receiving his final HSC score to calm his nerves. He didn’t need to, graduating as dux of Sydney Grammar in 1982.

“For all the focus on marks … I can think of plenty of people who didn’t get into the course they wanted and have succeeded.”

While the mark got him into the arts and law course he wanted at the time, Fletcher said it wasn’t a be-all, end-all.

“For all the focus on marks, and whether it would get you into the relevant course, I can think of plenty of people who didn’t get into the course they wanted and have succeeded,” he said. “It’s not the determinant of where you’re going to end up.”

A humanities-oriented student during high school, Fletcher said some of his interests, including economics, came up later in life.

“I didn’t do any economics in school, but happened to choose it at university and became very interested in it,” he said. “Interests evolve over time.”

1992: Thirty years ago

When The Herald spoke to James Ruse students Drew and Damien Macrae 30 years ago, the Richmond-raised twins got into law with scores of 98.35 and 99.4 respectively. Drew had his sights set on practising criminal or industrial law, while Damien fell into the subject because he didn’t know what else to do.

Drew and Damien Macrae in a January 1993 edition of The Herald.Credit:Sydney Morning Herald

Both ended up staying in the legal space, but neither path was free of twists and turns.

“The HSC feels irrelevant now to the world I live in,” Drew said. “Ultimately, you find your way later on in the area of study that you choose.”

Drew dabbled in journalism, media ethics and writing before becoming a senior policy advocacy officer at the Financial Rights Legal Centre.

“Wherever you think you’re going to end up, you rarely end up there, and that’s okay,” he said.

Drew said it was important to be a self-starter at university because “there’s no one there pushing you anymore”.

“If you find what you love doing, you’ll always be motivated.”

Despite his high score, Damien hated the HSC.

“In year 11, I broke down because of the stress,” he said. “The pressure was all-encompassing at the time.”

In retrospect, Damien said he regrets having worked so hard during the HSC.

“The HSC gives you a window of opportunity, but as soon as it’s over, it doesn’t really matter.”

Twins Damien (left) and Drew Macrae both work in the legal space, but their journeys haven’t been easy.Credit:James Brickwood

Damien said coming from the western suburbs made the transition to university harder for he and his brother.

“We came from Richmond and were born in Blacktown, and we didn’t know anyone,” he said. “I didn’t make one friend.”

He didn’t want to finish his economics or law degrees, but said he was too stubborn and too heavily invested to quit.

For years, Damien was adamant he didn’t want to become a lawyer, preferring to play a supporting role as a knowledge consultant.

It wasn’t until he started work in intellectual property that he changed his mind.

“I found my people,” Damien said. “I get to work with creative industries and innovation, and I felt at home for the first time in my career.”

Damien’s advice to HSC graduates is to prioritise enjoying life.

“Instead of just focusing on studying, be a bit easier on yourself,” he said. “When I look for jobs, I look at the people working them, whether I want to be that person and whether they look like they’re having fun in life.”

Royal Perth Hospital infectious diseases physician Alison Keed also graduated in 1992. Now it’s her daughter who is among the year 12 students waiting for their results.

But Keed doesn’t think her children are likely to pursue the same career path.

Alison Keed graduated in 1992, and is now an infectious diseases physician at Royal Perth Hospital.

“I think I’ve put my daughter and son off doing medicine because they see me work, and they live it,” Keed said.

Medicine was always the aim for Keed, but she said getting a perfect score of 100 came as a complete shock. Nor did she expect to be living in WA.

Keed studied a six-year undergraduate degree in medicine at Sydney University before travelling to London on a scholarship to study tropical medicine, and to Africa to complete her research.

She returned to Camperdown to complete her training in infectious diseases at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, before moving to Perth, where she ended up directing Western Australia’s Leprosy Control Program and working with the state’s Tuberculosis Program.

“Your marks are not necessarily defining and people shine at different times in their lives.”

While Keed’s high scores opened up opportunities, she said it was important for graduates to keep their options open and not rush through their studies.

“Opportunities are so broad, much broader than when I went through the HSC,” she said. “Your marks are not necessarily defining and people shine at different times in their lives.”

2002: Twenty years ago

For Oscar Oberg, a country kid from Yass who went to Shore on Sydney Harbour, a life back on the farm after graduating school in 2002 just wasn’t for him.

Oscar Oberg went into law after completing his HSC in 2002, but made his way into the world of finance as his career went on.Credit:Janie Barrett

Instead, a five-year degree in Business and Law at the University of Technology Sydney was where he wanted to be, although he admits that at 18 years old you really don’t know what you want to do.

“I wouldn’t say when I was at school in year 12 that I had a firm idea of what I was going to do. I think all I really cared about was finishing and going to schoolies,” Oberg said.

After finishing his degree he packed his bags and set off around the world for eight months, something he recommends everyone does before settling into full-time employment.

“My advice would be don’t get too bogged down or stressed at school or in your early 20’s if you don’t know exactly what you want to do for your career.”

“If you work hard you get what you deserve. I also think it’s really important when you’re in your early 20s to do a lot of socialising, work while you are studying and try and do a lot of travelling.”

Today, Oberg is the lead portfolio manager at Wilson Asset Management. He says if the class of 2022 can learn anything from him, it’s that good things take time.

Oscar Oberg graduated from Shore in 2002. Credit:Oscar Oberg

“Don’t get too bogged down or stressed at school or in your early 20s if you don’t know exactly what you want to do for your career.

“I didn’t really get the role that I knew I would be doing for the rest of my life until I was 28.”

Mimi Zou also graduated in 2002. She has since worked at some of the world’s top universities, including Oxford, Columbia and Exeter, but 20 years ago she had aspirations to enter politics, telling The Herald, “there should be more ethnic women in parliament to reflect a more multicultural and democratic Australia”.

Zou majored in economics and law at Sydney University, but after a stint in several top law firms, she changed her mind on both politics and legal practice.

“I tried out corporate law but didn’t like the fact I was doing a lot of manual work as a junior lawyer,” she said.

A Herald feature on the HSC’s top achievers in 2002.Credit:Sydney Morning Herald

At 36 she became one of the youngest people appointed to a full professorship in the UK, joining the commercial law faculty at Exeter University.

Zou didn’t think she would leave Australia, but said “when you go abroad, you’re exposed to a much bigger world”, and that it was important to remain flexible and embrace uncertainty.

‘To be successful in life is not just about being academically or technically brilliant.’

“It’s actually okay not to know what you want to do, and to explore and not see that as time wasted,” she said.

Even today, Zou said she “can’t be satisfied with focusing on one thing”.

“I’m currently studying a computer science degree, I’ve worked as a consultant for the UN and I advise the UK government on artificial intelligence, data ethics and innovation.”

Mimi Zou has consulted for the UN, worked in academia, and advised the UK government on artificial intelligence.Credit:Mimi Zou

And although Zou has worked hard for what many would view as success, she said timing, luck and networks played a role.

“Let’s put it this way, I think hard work is a little overrated, especially for those of us who’ve always believed in hard work,” she said. “There are so many factors you can’t control. To be successful in life is not just about being academically or technically brilliant. You know your circumstances, so individuals should redefine what success is for themselves.”

2012: A decade ago

Ten years ago, Ashleigh Mounser was an ambitious young writer from the Central Coast who had landed herself on the distinguished achievers list.

At the same time, she was awarded the Herald’s young writer of the year award, a passion which carried her to the University of Wollongong where she studied a bachelor of creative writing.

Ashleigh Mounser, who aspired to be a writer from the age of four, has just signed her first book deal.

Ten years on, and the dream of becoming a published novelist is about to become a reality for Mounser, who has just signed her first book deal. “It probably did take me longer than I thought it was going to take because I was very ambitious at 18,” laughed Mounser.

She’s had a few published pieces along the way, but after inking the deal last week, Mounser said she feels excited and relieved.

For Mounser her passion and drive never wavered, and even though she entertained the idea of doing a more conventional degree, she said that everyone was in her corner, encouraging her to pursue writing.

“The English department at Kincumber High was really good, and my parents were really supportive. I think because I wanted to do it from the age of about four. So, it wasn’t like it was a passing thing,” Mounser said.

Before graduating from Wollongong, she did a stint at the University of Miami in the United States as part of an exchange, where she wrote Questions and Comments, a screenplay that was made into a film.

“I went away from novels for a little bit and I got really into screenwriting after I spent some time in the States,” Mounser said.

But ultimately, her passion was with books.

A clipping of Ashleigh Mounser’s entry which won her the Sydney Morning Herald’s young writer of the year award in 2012.Credit:Fairfax Media

Mounser’s book Blue Moon: Too Cool for School, a novel about an ambitious 11-year-old girl who grows up in a nursing home, will hit shelves in 2023.

Her advice for the graduating class of 2022: “Try not to look too far into the future. Most people change careers multiple times in their lives, so I don’t think it’s necessarily about making a decision that will lock you into a career for the next 50 or 60 years.”

With Tiffany Fong

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