Behind the OAM: How Hannah Wandel leads others to find power in a rural upbringing | HerCanberra

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Behind the OAM: How Hannah Wandel leads others to find power in a rural upbringing

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A month after Hannah Wandel, Founder of Country to Canberra, received her Order of Australia Medal, Country to Canberra’s current CEO Han Worsley reflects on the impact Hannah has made on their life.

“To empower women, both young and old, and to create a new generation where gender equality is top priority, rural communities such as my own need to be afforded more education campaigns, programs encouraging young women’s involvement in male-dominated career paths, and an overall promotion of gender equality.”

When I was 16 years old, I wrote these words in an essay submission to Country to Canberra’s Leadership Competition. I was living on my family farm near Nullamanna in New South Wales, and I had heard Country to Canberra’s founder and then CEO Hannah Wandel speaking on my local radio station as we made the long drive home from school.

She was spruiking a new leadership competition, all about gender equality, but especially for rural girls and non-binary people. As we turned off the dusty road home, and slowly wound up our driveway through the lambing paddocks, I had made my decision—I was going to enter.

This came as no surprise to my parents. I had opinions, and everyone knew about them. I joined the debating team, went to Youth Parliament, and started petitions. I angrily commented on Facebook posts, got into arguments with my peers, and lectured my siblings. I think my parents were thrilled every time I left the house for another “nerd camp”—a bit of peace and quiet.

Enter Country to Canberra. Hannah Wandel, then aged just 23, had started the charity from her kitchen table. Supported by a YWCA Canberra Great Ydeas Grant, the premise was simple—support rural, regional, and remote young women to reach their leadership potential.

Guided by her mantra, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”, Hannah hassled politicians, convinced friends, and persuaded local businesses to support her. In her words anyway. I have a well-founded suspicion they all jumped at the chance to support such an important, albeit fledgling, idea.

Now a national not-for-profit with award-winning suite of programs, a nationwide volunteer team, and incredible sponsorship and support across many industries, Country to Canberra, or C2C, is making serious change in the lives of young rural women and non-binary people.

Hannah was one of the incredibly deserving recipients of an Order of Australia Medal this Queen’s Birthday. The list of achievements within and beyond C2C that led to this moment is nothing short of impressive.

Founding Country to Canberra. Being named the 2019 ACT Young Australian of the Year. Hannah’s position as a senior executive at the National Recovery and Resilience Agency. Making it onto the Australian Financial Review’s 100 Women of Influence List.

But as someone personally touched by her mentorship and guidance, I wanted to shine a light on the behind the scenes support she has given to many. Hannah has made it eminently clear that the quiet mentorship, creation of genuine leadership pipelines, and passing on of opportunities is one of the most important parts of leadership, and it can sometimes go unsung when a big award such as this is presented.

Hannah Wandel with winners of Country to Canberra’s Power Trip.

Hannah has given thousands of volunteer hours, not just to her own charity, which she remains the Chair of, but also to many other boards, organisations, and causes across Australia.

She travelled 3,500km non-stop around Australia, delivering workshops to remote communities without being paid a cent. She is the reason that I, and many others in Canberra and beyond, have the confidence to continue her work.

I am writing this piece because Country to Canberra, and more specifically, Hannah’s mentorship, has changed the course of my life, as it has for many others. I came to Canberra on the Power Trip in 2014 with all the passion required, but none of the self-confidence.

Hannah and Country to Canberra have supported me through graduating high school, starting a medical degree, dropping out of a medical degree, coming out as gay, starting an education degree, and challenging my gender identity. And seven years later, I am the CEO of the same organisation, fundamentally because Hannah took her commitment to rural Australia beyond just running events and shaking hands. I am just one of many.

Hannah puts personal dedication into every young rural person that passes through our programs, into every decision she makes, and into every fibre of her being. It is reflected in the many young people around rural Australia who came to C2C a little unsure of themselves and later found their voices.

And so I go back to the words I wrote in my own application, as a young person living in rural Australia. Because of Hannah’s unerring, compassionate, and genuine mentorship, I am now empowered to be a part of the change I dreamed of.

Like all who have met her, been inspired by her, been through a Country to Canberra program—I am closer to reaching my leadership potential.

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