Vyvyen Wong was born and bred in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea. She is the youngest of nine children, and the first to complete a university degree. By age eight, she was assisting her parents with their local businesses. Her mother ran two local diners, and her father was a self-taught mechanic.
“I was exposed to business from a young age. My Mum was illiterate and Dad needed help in his workshop, so I would help them do the banking, fortnightly pays and taxes. I’d help them divvy out the money into packets and write their workers’ names. Dad taught me how to use a deposit book, so I would count the money before getting dropped to the bank – I’d barely reach the counter.”
Once she hit secondary school, Vyvyen was sent to boarding school in Australia – a common practice for Papua New Guineans of that age. She attended Star of the Sea Catholic Girls School (now Aquinas College) on the Gold Coast, and became an Australian citizen when Papua New Guinea gained independence. After finishing up high school, she enrolled into a Bachelor of Business, but later dropped out from the stress of studying, living away from home and her mother falling ill.
“My parents didn’t really matriculate. Dad only got to Seventh Grade and Mum didn’t go to school. When I had to choose my subjects in high school, I had to do that without any guidance because my parents couldn’t help with schoolwork. When I got to university, nobody could really understand my problems at that time, so I got out.
“I had to find a job, so I ended up becoming a barista in Brisbane’s Queen Street Mall. It was the year of Expo 88, and I was meeting a lot of international tourists. A colleague at the café came in one day and told me she’d been to the Southbank College of Tourism and Hospitality to do an Associate Diploma of Business and Travel Tourism. I thought it sounded interesting, but the applications were closing the next day. I went home from work, did up my CV, wrote my application, filled out some forms and dropped them in. They gave me a call two days later for an interview. Out of 1,000 applicants I was one of 50 students to get in.”
While she was at College, Vyvyen learnt about travel tourism, particularly travel agencies and airlines. She then secured a reservations job with Compass Airlines – Australia’s first low cost airline which began in 1990. From there, she moved to Sydney and started working for Qantas in sales and finance. Having never lost her motivation to study, she completed several courses through Qantas College and even completed a Diploma of Remedial Massage and Reflexology in Sydney’s Australasian College of Natural Therapies during long service leave.
“After spending 14 years in Sydney I decided it was time to move again. I needed to go somewhere quieter, but told myself that anywhere I went needed to have an international airport. I bought a house in Holloways Beach and moved to Cairns in 2007. I got a job with Airlines of Papua New Guinea, where I worked for two years.”
It was in Cairns – 25 years after her first attempt – that Vyvyen decided to enrol in another Bachelor of Business, which she studied mostly part-time at JCU while working for a travel agency group. In her final year she picked up an internship in JCU’s Digital Marketing team, which eventually led to her full-time appointment in JCU’s Division of Global Strategy and Engagement.
“When I finished at the travel agency group, I was a little disillusioned with marketing. I didn’t want to just sell holidays and destinations, I wanted to do something that gave me a sense of giving back to either Australia or Papua New Guinea – the two countries I hold dear to my heart. I took a break to finish off my degree and it was the best thing I ever did. I was able to be a normal student – I picked up work as a barista again and got more involved in campus life. I did a lot of volunteering at Careers Fairs, and it was the Careers and Employment Office that recommended me for the job I have today.
“I’m now working as the Project Officer on a joint project between JCU and the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG). We’re helping UPNG build capacity in their teaching, learning and research. We do that through activities like workshops and flexible delivery courses such as Writing for Publication workshops and the Graduate Certificate of Education (Academic Practice).”
A few months after starting her new job, Vyvyen graduated from her Bachelor of Business in Marketing and Tourism Management. Her oldest brother, sister-in-law, partner and friends from the East New Britain Community Group frocked up to celebrate her success.
“The knowledge you gain from university is something nobody can ever take away from you. I had the biggest grin when I was walking up the red carpet at graduation. I was like a kid let out into a candy store for the first time – I was just so excited in that moment.”