Changing Lanes, Whitney Barrett

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Originally training as a chef, Whitney Barrett found herself in the position of needing to retrain and move into a totally new career. Her tenacity and vision are inspirational, and she has received some outstanding awards through TAFE, including the prestigious 2018 North Coast Student of the Year Award for Excellence in Technology and Business Services.

Whitney, can you tell me a bit about your life in the Manning Valley?

I was born in the area, and am the youngest of five children. We grew up on an Angus (beef) farm between Gloucester and Bundook. 

At 16 years of age, I left school and commenced a cookery apprenticeship with the 4 star Barrington’s Country Retreat at Dungog, eventually moving from there to the Hunter Valley to continue my career. 

I moved back to the Manning region with my two young boys, trading the long hours of hospitality for a more family orientated life. 

I currently work casually at the Tinonee General Store with a fantastic group of staff, and my bosses are the nicest people I have ever met who run a business. It is like having a second family while you are at work, everyone looks out for each other, and that’s what I love about working there.

Your training as a chef took you to some salubrious establishments in the Hunter Valley. Tell us a bit about that.

During my time in the Valley, I was provided continuous opportunity to challenge myself as an apprentice, often completing and undertaking work/positions at the level of a qualified chef.

Back then, there was still a stigma around being a female apprentice in a male dominated workforce. It involved long hours, split shifts, high demand and was physically and mentally exhausting, so I found it very strange when my TAFE teachers encouraged me to attend cookery competitions, where I ended up achieving a handful of placings. 

During my time at Peppers Guest House, I also worked collaboratively at Peppers Convent, The Great Cask Hall (Hope Estate), Harvest restaurant (Hope Estate), Bimbadgen Estate, plus many other wedding and event venues. I had the honour of cooking breakfast and serving dinner for one of the first seasons of Farmer Wants a Wife, and met many other famous entertainers through catering for concerts and events. 

Moving back to the Manning Valley in 2014 saw you totally change your career and begin studying, where you’ve gone on to achieve some fabulous outcomes.  Can you tell us a bit more about this change in direction?

When I moved back to the Manning Valley, it was clear that I couldn’t fall back on my chef qualifications, because of the lack of opportunity to work child friendly hours. 

I remember sitting down and talking with a friend, who said to me, “Hey you’re not a stupid person; why don’t you go do a TAFE course and get recognised for what you can do?”. 

So in early 2015 I attended Taree TAFE Campus Open Day, enrolling in Business Administration Medical. After that, I completed the Certificate III Business Administration (Medical), returning again in 2017 to enrol and complete dual certificates, being Certificate III Business Administration (Legal), plus Certificate IV Business Administration, with the encouragement of my Business Teacher, Deb Kelly.  

Whilst undertaking the dual certificates, the Head Teacher of Business, Gail Smith, encouraged me to apply for a volunteer role of Secretary with the local Wingham Chamber of Commerce. I have been in this position for the past 20 months and gained huge amounts of practical skills and experience, as well as working with and meeting some fantastic people from our area. 

Currently, I am also about to complete Certificate IV Human Resources. 

The outcome for me means that I am now qualified across a broad area of administration, which hopefully will enable me to pick up some work within the next six months.

And you’ve been nominated for, and won, some amazing awards?

At the conclusion of 2017, I was awarded an Excellence Award at the Taree Campus Student Excellence Awards for my results in Certificate IV Business Administration. That night held other surprises, as I also was (unexpectedly) the first ever student to receive the Women In Business Leadership Award, and was honoured to be asked to be one of two Student Key Note Speakers for the ceremony that night and to participate in the cake cutting at the conclusion of the ceremony.

In 2018 I progressed through to the Regional TAFE Excellence Awards at Coffs Harbour, achieving the overall North Coast Student of the Year Award for Excellence in Technology and Business Services. To be successful in achieving this honour was an incredibly humbling experience. 

At the same time, I also was nominated and progressed through to the North Coast Finals for the NSW Government and Training Awards 2018 for Technology and Business Services Vocational Student of the Year, where I was a finalist of three students.

Is there anyone in particular you’d like to thank for their support in your journey so far?

Mostly I would like to thank my parents, Allen and Gail, for their ongoing support in helping me with my boys and enabling me to attend TAFE and complete the courses. 

Also my teachers, Gail Smith and Deb Kelly, are amazing! 

I’d also like to thank everyone from the Wingham Chamber of Commerce, especially Liz Jarvis for providing me with skills perspective and practical experience that has helped me reach my goals and gain valuable real world experience outside of TAFE.

Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

Ideally, I am aiming to complete my Business Courses and Teaching Assessment, so that I can start working at Taree TAFE, and once I am adequately qualified I would love to join the team at Taree TAFE Business Services and teach people just like me and be able to show them how easy it can be to follow the path that I have walked to change their career. 

Do you have any words of encouragement for anyone who is thinking about changing their career?

The first thing that I cannot emphasise enough is that TAFE is not just for teenagers or people who are stuck without work. I was so nervous when I first walked through those doors to Student Central, because I thought I probably couldn’t do it. It is a very scary thing to say to yourself, “Hey, I can’t/don’t want to do this anymore, so I need to learn something different”. Don’t worry about what people will think … If you want the change, go for it. 

I started out as a single mum with a career that I couldn’t use anymore. I started at the bottom and worked my way up. I gained my confidence back, acquired new skills and have helped others along the way. Studying wasn’t just about certificates for me; it helped my lifestyle, I made friends, lost my anxiety, and realised that I will only achieve what I let myself try, and there’s no point wasting time wishing I had done things years ago when I have the capability to DO it now! 

Thanks Whitney.

Interview: Ingrid Bayer.

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