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Elizabeth Decolongon (Warren, 1942)

Read the full article in the 2018 Ut Prosim.

From her early years at Wenona, to travelling the world with the Department of External Affairs, Elizabeth has witnessed decades of social and political history.

Arriving at the Wenona boarding house in 1936 from Sri Lanka aged 11, Elizabeth had already experienced boarding life, having attended a co-educational school for children of the Colonial Service. The Sri Lankan school ran to a traditional English curriculum overseen by English masters, who treated the girls as if they were boys. Girls were called by their surnames and were indoctrinated with the discipline and values of an English public school. The educational and behavioural standards were onerous. 

Elizabeth's connection to Wenona was familial; her uncle on her mother's side was married to Wenona's Principal, Miss Ralston's sister. The fact that Elizabeth was too old to attend her colonial school and that she would have family close by, influenced the move from Sri Lanka to settle in Sydney.

Elizabeth reflects that the transition was challenging. "I was the youngest in the boarding house and felt very different to the country girls. I often felt lonely and that I didn't fit in."

Elizabeth remembers Miss Mills with both fondness for her gentle kindness and admiration for her intellect and scholarship. She also remembers Miss Grace, a geology teacher, who was a fine scholar and professional teacher.

After completing her leaving certificate, Elizabeth took a Double First at the University of Sydney, majoring in anthropology and history. Upon completion of her degree, Elizabeth's life was to change course dramatically, through the simple act of reading the newspaper. "My mother saw an advertisement in the paper placed by the Australian government. They were looking for diplomatic cadets." Elizabeth was one of 12 cadets chosen in 1948, making her one of the earliest women to work in the Department of External Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

"Back then, misogyny ruled the roost. During the Menzies era, the three women in our group of 12 were paid two-thirds of the men's salaries and there were sufficient funds to only promote the men. We were the early foundation of working women."

Elizabeth was moved to Canberra by her department, before being posted to South Africa during the height of apartheid. "I was relocated to the Philippines, followed by a period in Canada. One of my career highlights was being a member of the Australian delegation at the United Nations General Assembly in New York."

Resigning from DEF in order to marry, Elizabeth moved back to the Philippines where she lived until 1990. "We ran an export business during the unsettled era of President Marcos. Once the regime collapsed, our business collapsed too, and I came to Australia to start again."

This year, through her friendship with the DFAT archivist, Elizabeth was special guest at a book launch held in the Treaty Room in their offices in Canberra. "I sat next to the Secretary of Foreign Affairs. There was an enchanting atmosphere and a sense of goodwill. The Department has a deep sense of their history. It was wonderful to witness a government institution that has grown in such a positive way."

Elizabeth Decolongon 1

Elizabeth Decolongon (Warren, 1942) with the current DFAT graduate trainees in Canberra.