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College rector reconnects with Adelaide


Sean Brito-Babapulle is counting his blessings as he looks back on his first year as rector of Aquinas College at Montefiore Hill, North Adelaide.

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Aside from enjoying being back in the city where he attended university as a young man and going to work every day at one of the most scenic tertiary residential colleges in Australia, Sean Brito-Babapulle, 53, is grateful to be alive.

Ten years ago he was head of John XXIII College at the Australian National University in Canberra and studying his Masters of Business Administration when he suffered a stroke.

During one of his MBA classes he noticed he was slurring his words but, being a diabetic, thought it was low sugar levels so drove himself back to the college. Fortunately, the deputy head was a former paramedic and immediately took him to hospital.

“I’m very lucky to be alive, I had a bleed in the brain stem and one of the complications was an expulsive haemorrhage…one of those rare things that resulted in me losing my left eye,” he said.

He spent the next three months in hospital but continued to work and that same year was appointed principal of Mannix College at Monash University, Melbourne.

Last year he moved back to Adelaide after being recruited to replace Marist Brother Michael Green as rector of Aquinas College.

It is his seventh residential college leadership appointment and fourth at a Catholic facility.

“I’ve always loved the Catholic residential college system,” he said.

“It’s been great coming here, and it’s full circle for me, being at Flinders University 35 years ago.”

Sean laughs as he recalls being sneaked into the Aquinas dining room by a group of students when he was at uni and being caught by the rector who proceeded to lecture them about the cost of the meals.

A boarder at Monivae College in western Victoria for his last two years of secondary school, he came to Adelaide with the hope of following in his father’s footsteps and studying medicine.

“Dad was the local GP in Murtoa, a town of about 1000 people near Horsham; he came from Sri Lanka and studied here under the Colombo program back in the late 40s…he was the first Sri Lankan to study under the program in Melbourne,” Sean said.

“For nearly 20 years my father ran a small country practice and worked in the 15-bed hospital.”

His parents were actively involved in the local community and raised their four children Catholic.

“Everyone knew us because we were the only coloured people in the town,” Sean said.

“There was a little bit of racism but as soon as they heard we were the doctor’s kids it was okay.”

When he wasn’t accepted into medicine, Sean studied Science, specialising in immunology and microbiology, and completed a Biomedical Science (Honours) in Radiology and a Graduate Diploma in Education. He also commenced a PhD in Nuclear Medicine research. During his 10 years in Adelaide he was the Student Club president, senior resident tutor and acting dean of Flinders Hall, where he met his wife, Sara, who was on a study exchange from the USA.

Married in Indianapolis, the couple backpacked for four months in Africa for their honeymoon before financial reality set in and Sean took on the role of deputy head of Mary White College at the University of New England (UNE) in Armidale.

At the age of 28 he was encouraged by the Dominicans to apply for the position of master of St Albert’s College at the UNE. After facing an interview panel of 13 people, including four priests, Sean told Sara he had “no hope” but soon learned he had won the position.

The youngest head of a residential college in Australia, he said the Dominicans were looking for someone who could connect with the students, something that has been important to him as well throughout his career.

Since commencing at Aquinas he has made it a priority to learn the names of all 180 students, as well as where they are from and what they are studying.

“Luckily the stroke didn’t affect my memory,” he said jokingly.

With Sara, a lecturer in occupational therapy, and youngest son Alexander spending time in the USA this year after Sara’s father died suddenly, Sean has had more time than usual to spend with the students.

When his Labrador Lulu died a couple of months ago, he was overwhelmed by the support.

“They’ve been really good, they used to walk her (Lulu) so they knew how upsetting it was for me,” he said.

“It’s a great environment here, the Catholic values are really good and it’s a small community compared to colleges on the east coast.”

The couple’s eldest son Nicholas is living in Melbourne and the family was reunited last month for his graduation from nursing at Monash University. Sean said he and Sara had always been a partnership, ever since they first lived on campus together as a newly married couple.

“She is a good foil for me and a great role model for young women,” he said.

“We brought up our boys on campus, it’s a privilege living on campus…and it was good for the students to have a young family present.”

Since coming to Aquinas, where he resides in an apartment across the road, Sean said he had noticed three positives: family and community spirit; the continuation of academic excellence; and an emphasis on outreach.

With the college’s catchphrase ‘uni on the hill’, Sean said there was an excellent academic program that had been driven by Br Michael and now led by Dr Sarah Moller.

While about 40 students regularly attend Mass in the chapel on Sunday evenings Sean acknowledged the reality that only 45 per cent of students are Catholic and even less are practising.

“So there’s a big focus on social justice, we have a huge outreach program – whether volunteering in nursing homes, donating blood or raising money for charity, there’s always something going on.”

Through his college leadership positions and his involvement with the student accommodation sector in general, Sean is all too aware of the problem of hazing. A past president and life member of the Asia-Pacific Student Accommodation Association and a fellow of the National Association of Australian University Colleges, he said hazing, intimidation and bullying had been a “real concern” across the sector for decades.

“I’ve had issues in my colleges, that’s what you get when 17 to 20 year olds make poor decisions and you’ve got to deal with that,” he said.

“You have to do your best to provide a safe environment and be accountable as heads of colleges.”

Sean said he was grateful to the Aquinas College Council, Catholic Education SA and the Archdiocese for “giving me the opportunity to lead this amazing community”.

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