Courtney Ireland: London and The Great Big Walk
Many Australian women seek work in the charity and philanthropic sectors here in the UK. Courtney Ireland is one such woman. Since moving to London, she has built a great career and undertaken an epic challenge as part of The Great Big Walk - an idea from the Eden Project which saw 14 walkers cover 1,400 miles to shine a light on community projects across the UK.
Growing up in Australia
Courtney grew up in the south east suburbs of Melbourne in Australia. I asked her what it was like growing up in this area. Her answer reminded me to be grateful that Australian children have access to so many outdoor opportunities.
“I had a great childhood with access to lots of activities - dancing, singing, aerobics - and grew up in an area which was close to green spaces for bike riding and running. I attended a public school in my area and lived in a lovely home overlooking the Dandenong ranges. Family holidays away camping and water-skiing along the Murray River were a highlight and involved the entire extended family getting together to enjoy some time outdoors.”
Many Australian women want to establish careers that align with their values. I wondered what shaped Courtney’s career choices and how she found her way into the community sector after a corporate beginning.
“When commencing my career after university I had all the drive and ambition of a youthful - and slightly naïve - business graduate wanting to climb the corporate ladder. I learnt a great deal from my early experiences working in change management at Accenture and that set the tone for great discipline and commitment in my employment endeavours.”
“After completing the graduate program I decided to change course a little and headed into the Not for Profit Sector, seeking a closer connection with people and hoping to make a tangible difference in the lives of those less fortunate. I spent five years working as an Employment Advisor with Mission Australia, where no two days were the same and I had some of the most interesting experiences of my career!”
“Prior to my move to London, I spent a year working as an Industry Consultant in the Career Centre at the University of Melbourne. I really enjoyed having the opportunity to work in one of the world’s top educational institutions and loved being in an environment of continual learning. Universities tend to foster a great sense of community so there was always a fascinating free talk to listen to, intelligent discussions to overhear in the elevator or lunchtime mindfulness sessions to attend.”
“My work experience to date has seen me move more and more towards organisations that are philanthropically-focussed and in roles that are centred around community development and engagement. I find myself captivated by stories of aid work in disadvantaged communities around the world, have a passion for making things better and seem to have a natural inclination toward work that revolves around people and communities.”
Move to London
I asked Courtney why she decided to move to London and how she found the transition.
“I was attracted to London for similar reasons most antipodeans make the move across – the lure of international work experience on a global platform, travel and the opportunity to broaden my horizons both personally and professionally.”
“My transition to the UK hasn’t been as straightforward as I had hoped! One year ago I touched down in London with an anxious heart full of hope and a head full of dreams. It's amazing how you can pack a couple of suitcases and start a whole new life on the other side of the planet.”
“This past year has been a real rollercoaster and one heck of a crazy ride. There has been travel, new friends, new perspectives, a lot of hard work and an unexpected, epic 250 mile walk across half of England. There have been a lot of significant challenges - redundancy, accommodation issues, home burglary, illness, uncertainty, homesickness, loneliness and more darn boiler issues than I care to recount. #DontLoveLondonWinters”
“I have had to face a lot of fears and do things I didn't think I could do. It has demanded I become very independent and resilient and I have learned to be resourceful. In fact I'd say this journey has been 'character building' in overdrive! I hope at the end of the day it's made me stronger, smarter and a little more worldly. I'm proud of myself for all I've achieved.”
Courtney now works for the Eden Project, one the UK’s most beloved educational charities that connects people with each other and the living world. In her role with the Eden Communities team, she works with powerfully ordinary people in communities across the UK to make positive change where they live. I asked her how she scored such a fantastic job.
“I actually found out about the job via my housemate, who had seen it on Twitter - these modern times we live in! - and thought it would be a perfect fit for me given my interest in community development! When I first saw the role advertised, something about the whole ethos and vision of Eden really resonated with me – it gave me goose bumps. I just knew it would be an incredible place to work. I was lucky enough to be offered the job on the day of the interview and haven’t looked back since!”
Community engagement is a passion for Courtney and a key part of her work. I asked her to tell me about her work and what she is learning from it?
“Our aim at Eden Communities is to improve the happiness and wellbeing of people across the UK by helping to build more resilient and better connected communities. We know from research that community involvement can act to reduce loneliness and isolation and encourage positive change within communities. That can mean everything from being able to borrow a tool or carpooling kids to school, to a reduction in crime rates and antisocial behaviour.”
“On a personal level, I’ve also experienced feeling disconnected from community. During my transition to the UK I’ve definitely felt the distance from home support networks and experienced some loneliness and isolation while trying to build my new life.”
“I enjoy grass roots experiences and I try to get connected locally. Relocating to a new country and a new city has meant I’ve had to put extra effort into establishing relationships and I’ve had to be a bit brave and put myself out on a limb to do that. I’ve gotten to know my neighbours really well and we are involved in each other’s lives, which has been lovely and also a lifesaver on a number of occasions (like when we lost power and hot water to our house the night before my first day on the job!) Over Christmas I did some volunteering at the Advent shelter to bring a little Christmas spirit to people less fortunate.”
“I have also gotten involved in Goodgym runs (which combine fitness with a volunteering mission like preparing food or sorting clothing for the homeless) and have been participating in park runs which are also a nice way to connect with my local community and get to know others in the area. I think feeling connected to your community as an individual is incredibly important and the positive ripple effects that can come from communities that live, work and play cohesively together can be manifold.”
Readers may know that earlier this year, the tragic death of politician Jo Cox resulted in an outpouring of grief but also inspired communities to come together and celebrate her life and values through initiatives like The Great Big Walk and The Big Lunch. Courtney took part in The Great Big Walk. I asked her about the highlight of her experience.
“I really think this initiative has come at a pivotal time, given all the turmoil in the world and around the UK recently. I was uncomfortably close to the events at Westminster several months ago and hope that the project has spread some much needed seeds of hope and positivity.”
“It was incredible to take the work that we do at Eden on the road and connect with so many amazing community champions across the UK. I think it enabled us to offer a unique high-altitude, panoramic view of how the threads of our lives connect in a beautiful tapestry. And of course, since the UK is still fairly new for me I was thrilled to have the chance to explore it in such a unique way. What a great way for a foreigner to experience the UK!”
“I learnt a lot about my own limits and abilities through the walk and was challenged physically, mentally and emotionally. I wasn’t sure I was capable of walking over 250 miles or handling the media maelstrom that surrounded the walk. I still can’t believe I managed 15 radio interviews, appeared on regional news channels and high profile UK-wide national television chat shows! I believe we really did help to promote the important message of togetherness and saw community spirit flourish through The Great Big Walk.”
“It was a real adventure and an experience that will colour my world for many years to come.”
Advice to would be travellers
I asked Courtney about career advice for other women travelling to London.
“I think it’s important to be positive but also realistic about things when looking for work in a new country. Things won’t always fall in your lap and I think it’s sometimes necessary to take positions or accept salaries you may not have done back home, just to get your foot on the ladder. I’ve found that salaries in many sectors can be quite low - wages here were a lot lower than I expected.”
“I have found that London recruiters and employers usually look for you to have ‘London experience’ and are often looking for very specific skills and experience, which can be a challenge when you have broad experience across a number of sectors.”
“Being on a visa can also be a barrier to obtaining permanent full time work, depending on which employer or recruiter you speak to. Some of them view the visa as a bit of a liability and don’t feel it’s worth investing in someone who will have to leave the organisation at the end of their visa.”
Getting the heads-up from friends who have made the journey here is important. I asked Courtney if there was anything she wished she had known before she boarded the plane.
“London is big and boisterous and can be a very transient city. It can swallow you up if you don’t develop a bit of backbone and resilience. There have been lots of lonely times and I’ve had to work hard to re-establish myself, make new friends and get out there. I highly recommend what I’ve affectionately termed ‘blind friend dating,’ whereby a friend or contact from home puts you in touch with somebody they know in your new city. Forming relationships can be a little easier when there’s a common connection and a warm introduction.”
“If you’re from Australia its worth preparing yourself - you will miss the sea and the very short, dark, cold days in winter will be difficult to adjust to!”
“I also wish somebody had warned me to expect a complete lack of personal space and zero spatial awareness of every person in the city, and of course need we mention the extreme heat and crushing phenomenon on the tube! “
Finally, I asked Courtney to give me a list of her favourite experiences in London.
“All the theatre! I adore musicals and just love how accessible so many shows are here.”
“The parks! I have been surprised by the number and size of the parks in London and by what a green city it is. London has some beautiful green spaces that are well planned and so lovely to spend time in. I’m always impressed by the floral displays, incorporation of ‘wild growth’ areas and still get excited every time I see a sparrow or little red robin flitting around.
“The multiculturalism in London! I love hearing all the different accents and languages on the street or whilst travelling on the tube and trying to guess where people are from. I’ve met people from so many different countries and learned about places and cultures I didn’t know much about before.”
“And of course, who could forget the access to travel opportunities in the UK and Europe that living in London provides – I think I’m still coming to terms with the fact that I could just get on a plane and be in Paris for the weekend!”
You can follow Courtney on these social links: