Mary Pilkinton: Community Engagement Co-ordinator, Little Dreamers

Posted: 24 March 2022

Mary Pilkinton is a 2017 alumna from MLC School, Sydney. She is a passionate environmentalist who believes that everything is connected, “it is a false binary to talk about humans and nature”. Mary believes that “it is impossible to separate humans from nature” as we are all part of the same ecosystem. This conviction is supported by her recent research at Wollongong University. Mary researched the wellbeing impact of nature spaces on people with intellectual disabilities. Her interest in wellbeing, fuelled by her affinity for the environment, sustainability and people’s connection with their environments, has motivated her search for jobs focused on environmental policy.

Having completed her Bachelor of Science in Human Geography, Mary is enjoying a gap year and working for a non-profit organisation called “Little Dreamers”. It is an organisation that supports young people and children who are caring for a family member with a chronic condition or disability.

Mary’s love of animals and nature started young. “When I was a small child, I was definitely an animal nerd”. Her passions developed and she became interested in systems and connections. She began to see the links between nature and positive wellbeing. Her younger brother, Dan, is the inspiration behind her research.

Dan is autistic and non-verbal. Mary explains that the times she spends with him in nature are positive; he draws energy from his natural surroundings, and it affects his wellbeing in a good way. “When we were growing up, we would go for walks and I could see how much he enjoyed it. He loves being in the Australian Bush; water is a real space of calm and enrichment for him.”

Mary believes that the nurturing environment at MLC – and her experiences in regional conferences and exchanges – provided her with the safe space where she could take risks and learn from others. The school’s ethos and commitment to internationalism and environmentalism fed into her passions and provided an inspiration for her school-based projects.

“Round Square was undoubtedly a big part of my development. I think the school and the connections made with Round Square meant that there was a lot of opportunity to explore my interests.  Whether it was running projects with the Round Square Committee, or just being a part of how the school valued sustainability and the environment.”

Mary was an active member of the Round Square Committee from Grade 6 to Grade 12. She remembers engaging in several service projects, leading initiatives and connecting with other Round Square schools. She remembers that attending conferences was transformative. Most powerful were the connections she made, both with other students and in her thinking. She was able to see how theory relates to action.

“I think it was the first time that I was able to have meaningful discussions with other young people about environmental issues. It helped me identify the things I was really interested in. Not necessarily working with animals, or surveying things from far away, but looking closely at the interactions between people and the environment. It’s about the crossover between how we live our lives, and the impact that we have on the living things around us. It is not just the theory, it’s about taking action on the things you care about.”

Mary attended the 2014 Round Square International Conference hosted by The Sanskaar Valley School – Bhopal, India. She describes the experience as “life changing”. It was the first time she had travelled overseas without her parents. The freedom and responsibility she felt as she took that step towards independence remains with her.

“I think that the experience of traveling in a small group of students really fostered my capabilities as a traveller. When you travel in a large group, you are whisked around and you do not have an active role in the experience. This trip really challenged me, but at the right level. It gave me so much confidence to travel alone as a young adult.”

In addition to the heightened confidence she felt as she successfully negotiated experiences on her own, Mary also thrived in the multicultural atmosphere at the international conference. “The cultural exchange that happens at a conference really inspired me to seek out more experiences where I could meaningfully connect with people from all over the world.”

Thinking back on the opportunities she had at MLC, and the impact her experiences had on her personal development, Mary appreciates the support she experienced as she balanced responsibility, accountability and challenge.

“I think that one of the most important things that schools can offer is to give students a space where they have opportunities for leadership. Opportunities to take initiative about things that they are passionate about. To practice running projects at school and knowing that if you fail it is not the end of the world. You are supported and you have agency to make a difference. My school did that.”

Mary believes that the development of these skills and competencies have supported her success beyond school. “The experiences gave me a sense of security in my skills. I knew that there were times at school where it hadn’t worked out, but I coped. I learned from those times. All those skills I developed were transferable. They helped me to take initiative, start new projects and seek replacements for what I had left at school.”

As Mary sought out university scholarships and was invited to interview, she found that she was able to share her interests in the environment and the experience she had in sustainability-based projects with the interviewers. “I was able to talk a lot about my interest in sustainability and the environment.” The interviewers wanted to understand how her interest translated into action. “They wanted to get a picture of who I was.” Mary feels that her community engagement enabled her to share more about her character and actions.

When asked to share what advice she would give to students in High School, Mary talks about flexibility and uncertainty. She says, “it’s okay to not know what you’re going to do after school, or even after uni. There are opportunities that don’t even exist yet, that you can’t plan for, and if you follow what makes you excited and explore what you’re passionate about, you’ll find so many pathways to unexpected and exciting places.” 



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