Postcard from Brisbane: A COVID refugee in the lucky country

Madie is an Advance member recently returned to Australia

Madie Sturgess Contributor

I sat mulling over a drink at my layover in LAX when the Prime Minister declared the start of my “and then COVID hit” story. En route to Australia a shadow of doubt was immediately cast over my apartment, belongings, job, community, my life in Washington DC. I soon landed in Brisbane as the second flight in Australia to require mandatory at-home quarantining – my sister arrived from France minutes before on the first. My annual trip home had unwittingly made me a refugee in my own country.

Growing up as the child of a Haitian mother in rural Queensland, my understanding of how disproportionately lucky Australians are was realised younger than most. I longed to work in the international development space, but my university experience was far from inspiring, my postgraduation experience was a complete failure to launch, and I struggled to find the start I craved.

While I figured out my next steps I worked in media. For three years, I’d come home from work to spend hours studying sustainable development; I eventually came across an American non-profit that would later become my employer. Getting a toe in the door as a communications intern I moved from Brisbane to a remote community in Haiti.

The next three years of my life were the antithesis of the work-life balance that distinguishes Australia’s work culture. Within months I’d gone from an intern to a project manager based in Washington DC. The tiny team built solar microgrids and energy services in underserved Haitian communities using frontier tech and models Australia has barely begun to embrace. I wore every hat possible, collaborating with cleantech startups, the World Bank, climate finance groups, and federal development agencies.

And much to my delight, at nearly every turn, I’d find an Australian.

I had the pleasure of meeting Australian energy access professionals in Nairobi, a high-end fashion photographer in the Bahamas, a JAXA awarded space professional at the Australian Embassy in DC, manufacturing executives and emergency workers in Port-au-Prince, and startup founders in London. I will always be profoundly impressed by the unassuming and exceptional Australian talent chasing their passions across this planet. Each one eager to stumble upon a fellow Aussie to trade stories about their adventures off the island.

Madie moved from Brisbane to a remote community in Haiti, before landing a job in Washington DC

A global pandemic was the bellowing reminder of the things many expats push to the side while they hustle abroad. Australia benefits from a healthcare system, a society who believe in social trust, and of course my community and family are here. While I stressed about my career, I fell back in step with my local community and produced three short films. I’m now developing a television series with an incredible local director/writer.

Much more quickly than I could have anticipated, I found work with the Queensland Farmers’ Federation and their microgrids for agriculture project. I am the youngest on the team, one of the few women collaborating on the project, and the only person who has directly developed a microgrid.

My time overseas has accelerated my career in ways I’m still coming to terms with.

I expect my future will continue to be an international one. But for now, I look forward to contributing to and learning from the solutions to be uncovered on home soil. Our current brain gain is a true opportunity for every industry at home to innovate. The thousands of highly skilled and experienced repats are some of the most adaptable, gutsy, imaginative, and determined talent in the market. Employers, seek them out!

When the world opens up again, I encourage anyone looking to jumpstart their career, to think globally. The experience and perspectives you can gain is something a degree can’t afford and gives you an edge on every graduate carrying the same piece of paper as you.

I came home expecting to celebrate my father’s birthday, and ended up nurturing and walking two very different and rewarding career paths. I can’t wait to see communities, businesses, and ideas flourish from this rare mass repatriation event. This is a truly exciting time for Australia and all who love her.

Connect with Madie

Madie Sturgess is a Brisbane based clean tech professional and media producer. If you’re thinking about returning to the great southern land or have recently returned and are looking to connect with a fellow repat, get in touch!