Parents pave the way for valedictorian

17 Jul 2019

This week, more than 2000 business, economics and law students graduated from The University of Queensland.

Michael with his parents.
Michael with his parents.

For valedictorian Michael Chen, graduation marked the completion of a five-and-a-half-year double degree in law and economics, and the beginning of his future in law.

During his valedictory address at last night’s ceremony, Michael urged his fellow graduands to use this time to reflect and celebrate the many learnings and achievements of their university experience.

“Today, we should all be proud, but also thankful – for our friends, partners, families, teachers and mentors who have supported us through our university careers,” he said.

Michael said the two people he was most grateful for were his parents, who – through their own hardships and educational successes – taught him the importance of hard work, gratitude and resilience.

Below, we share an excerpt from Michael’s address, where he tells the story of his parents’ university experiences, and encourages his fellow graduands to “learn more, do more and achieve more”.

My parents were born in Communist China. These were bleak times.

My parents finished high school during the Cultural Revolution, which had resulted in the almost total closure of universities in China.

Instead of attending university, my parents were sent to labour on the countryside. In my mother’s case, she was sent to a village of 200 people, where she ploughed the fields and carried 50kg buckets of water from the streams to the mountain, earning a yearly wage equivalent to $8.

Suddenly, the Cultural Revolution ended, and universities reopened.

Admission to university – and, therefore, my parents’ futures – depended on success in six exams held over a three-day period.

And so, they studied. Mum would work in the fields from 4am until 10pm. Then, she’d start studying. She'd collect scrap oil, which was used to clean farm machinery, into an inkbottle which she would burn as a light source.

Because universities were closed for a decade, there were nearly six million candidates across China vying for places. Only five per cent would gain admission to university.

My parents were both successful.

They both studied computer science at Nanjing University, where they gained not only an undergraduate degree but an added bonus: meeting each other.

After graduation, my mother was accepted into a master’s degree at Nanjing, one of 12 spots available nationwide. My father, meanwhile, topped the postgraduate entrance exam, earning himself a PhD position and scholarship to Herriot-Watt University, Edinburgh.

At the time, few could afford to leave China, and further, strict emigration restrictions meant visas to leave China were tightly controlled.

But my father – and, a few years later my mother, who completed her PhD at Herriot-Watt as well – earned the chance to start a life abroad, lead a professional career and live a comfortable life.

We are fortunate the world we live in is more forgiving than the one my parents grew up in. But the lessons, I think, remain much the same.

There’s no limit to the things we can achieve when armed with a first-rate education, a desire to aim higher than our station and the tenacity to put in the hard work required.

By graduating today, we have demonstrated that we have the capacity and resilience to face great challenges and come out the other side stronger.

We should be incredibly proud of our achievements and, at the same time, look forward to the next phases of our lives with an eagerness to learn more, do more and achieve more.

Congratulations again, and I wish you all the very best.

About Michael

Michael studied a Bachelor of Economics/Bachelor of Laws at UQ from 2014-19.

During his studies, Michael received a number of prestigious academic prizes, undertook clerkships and work experience, supported his fellow students as an academic tutor, volunteered for the UQ Law Society, and participated in mooting competitions and summer research projects.

Following graduation, Michael is looking forward to a well-earned rest and some overseas travel before returning to undertake an Associateship in 2020 with Justice Bond of the Supreme Court of Queensland.

In 2021-22, Michael plans to complete a training contract at Linklaters in London, where he hopes to gain a world-class insight into the practice of law on a truly global scale.

Learn more about studying law at UQ or graduations at UQ.

Media: Gemma Ward,