The Curious Case of Elizabeth Berryman

Elizabeth Berryman is standing for the Chairperson role of the New Zealand Medical Association. She is also a student. Emma Espiner discusses why Berryman's 'mature student' status should not preclude her from running.

There's a strange displacement that occurs when you return to university as a 'mature' student.

Among my social circle I'm usually the youngest by a significant margin, except for my friends from high school and from my first tour of duty at university in the early 2000s.

Among my peers at medical school I'm almost the oldest. I try not to wince when classmates talk about being born in the '90s. They look sheepish when they talk about people in their 30s as 'ancient' within earshot.

This isn't to disparage my younger classmates. These are some of the most terrifyingly competent people you'd ever meet. Under no circumstances could 20-year-old me hold her own with these bright and empathetic future doctors. Which is why we're sitting in the same lecture theatre when I'm 33 and they're 20.

Probably the hardest part about being an older student is not that my peers are a lot younger. That quickly faded because, in any group, you always find your tribe eventually. I might be the ancient kuia of my university iwi but they're still my people.

The hardest part for me is that our teaching staff don't relate to me as an adult. Despite trudging into lecture theatres as one of almost 300 other students every day, in my head I'm still a grown up; a mother and a wife with a decade's experience in the workforce, working two part-time jobs as well as studying full-time. My life is less a juggle than a full circus act, especially with my toddler thrown in the mix.

But when I interact with our teaching staff they only see a student. The teacher/student barrier is obvious and it’s necessary. Our lecturers are setting professional boundaries that should be templates for our behaviour when we enter the workforce. I get that. But it still makes me feel small some days when I know the conversation would have a different tone if we met at a BBQ.

You're beginning to wonder why I've written any of this down, as I've seemingly resolved my own issue before your eyes.

The case that set off this train of thought was an interview on RNZ's Nine to Noon with Elizabeth Berryman, a fellow 'mature' student who is standing for the Chairperson role of the New Zealand Medical Association (NZMA).

I'll declare my interests right now - I don't know Elizabeth at all. Never heard of her until yesterday. I am a member of the NZMA, but I confess to almost never reading their emails. In between working two jobs and studying I rarely read anything which doesn't require immediate action. (This can make for a depressing digital existence because the only emails I tend to respond to are bills or work deadlines).

I gather from the RNZ piece that Elizabeth is a sixth-year medical student from Otago University (the 'other' medical school) and she has a background in nursing, business leadership, advocacy and governance roles.

I have a recruitment and executive search background and I worked on recruitment processes for roles like the NZMA Chairperson position in the past. If I were engaged by the NZMA to compile a shortlist, based on her CV I certainly would have considered Elizabeth. I'd expect to interview her alongside other candidates and speak to her referees before appointing her but I'd look at her very seriously. This would be based on her relevant and varied experience.

The fact that she is currently a student would be of undeniable interest but not a reason to ask her to withdraw from consideration - it is alleged in the interview that some have asked her to do just that.

Indeed, it appears that Elizabeth’s competence is not in question. She is a current member of the Board of the NZMA and the outgoing Chair, Stephen Child, was complimentary of her capability and performance in the role.

The thrust of his argument and that of some unnamed, concerned ‘external stakeholders’ was that it would be difficult for an individual to lead a professional membership organisation if that individual were not currently a member of the relevant profession. Mentioned also was the amount of time Elizabeth would have to spend executing her duties as the Chair.

We can dispense with the latter argument easily as Elizabeth outlined her time management skills in exhaustive (literally) detail to Lynn Freeman. The former argument is interesting but just doesn’t stack up in my view. Dr Child raises concerns that Elizabeth would find the advocacy and influencing responsibilities of the role difficult as a student, rather than a qualified doctor.

You need to be informed, networked, a confident and strong communicator to be an effective advocate in the way the NZMA Chair is expected to. I know this because I work in public health and some of my colleagues are the best in the business at advocating for the interests of the communities we serve. It’s not the same as a professional membership organisation, but there are transferable parallels. I’ve seen firsthand what it takes to influence politicians, local boards, DHBs and Government agencies.

In my opinion none of these essential capabilities are automatically precluded by Elizabeth’s status as a student. As Lynn Freeman pointed out in the interview, she’s not exactly your average student. And I guess this is where the whole thing resonated with me. Elizabeth’s obvious skills were being overlooked by the fact that she’s a student. Never mind that, despite being unprecedented, under NZMA rules it is possible for a student member to hold the role.

If Elizabeth wants to contest the role, feels she has something to offer, is willing and able to accommodate the demands and has the support of her university, there is absolutely no reason she should be opposed. In doing so, her opponents have simply brought her to the attention of NZMA members like myself who ignore their emails but certainly don’t ignore our public broadcaster when there’s a good health-related story going.

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