Quenching her thirst for knowledge
As a young mum in Melbourne’s Italian community in the late 1990s, Linda Di Sipio felt torn between two worlds. On the one hand, she was a devoted mother, wife and teacher, bound to a traditional attitude towards the role of women in society. On the other, she had a thirst for knowledge, and a longing to learn about many topics: science, religion, spirituality and leadership.
Linda already had years of higher education under her belt, boasting a science degree from the University of Melbourne and a graduate diploma of education from Australian Catholic University. She’d also spent more than a decade teaching at various Catholic schools.
But in her early 40s, in the middle of a career break after the birth of her third child, Linda was lacking in self-confidence.
“I was raising my family and that was really rewarding, but I was always worried I was going to miss the mark in many ways,” she says. “Looking back, I think I might have put myself down to fit in, and that may have diminished my curiosity and thirst for knowledge.”
Despite this, Linda could not ignore what she describes as “an itch in the heart”. She took the first step towards scratching that itch in 2003, returning to ACU to pursue a Graduate Certificate in Religious Education.
Amongst her family and her close-knit Italian community, a return to study as a mature-age student ran counter to expectations.
“In my community, at that stage, I was one of the few who slowly and cautiously stepped into something other than the role of being a good teacher, being a mother and supporting my husband in his business ventures,” says Linda, who for some time kept her studies secret from friends and acquaintances.
“No one was stopping me from following my passions, but I wasn’t confident enough to tell anyone I was doing it yet. I just felt like it was better to conform to the group I was in, to appear like I was doing what I was ‘supposed’ to be doing.”
Back to school
Linda Di Sipio’s return to university wasn’t all smooth sailing. She regularly questioned if she was doing the right thing.
She sought mentoring and guidance from many of her lecturers, including Associate Professor Michael Buchanan, now the Deputy Head of ACU’s School of Theology.
“Michael was one of my teachers at the time, and I’d say to him, ‘What am I doing here? I’m just a mother,’” Linda recalls.
“And Michael would respond, ‘No, no … don’t ever disregard the skills you are gaining as a mother, because you will draw from that wisdom in the future.’ I’ll never forget that, because I can now see that while I fumbled around at university at times, when I think about the skills I accrued, I am very grateful. I am grateful for the course content that opened my mind, and helped me to integrate wholeheartedly what it meant to teach religious education. As I continued to grow as a person, I felt freer to follow the curiosity that was inside me.”
After graduating in 2005, Linda decided to pursue further study, taking on a Master of Religious Education at ACU. She was also back at work, teaching religious education at the Methodist Ladies’ College in Kew.
Given she was a Catholic, Linda says she felt like “a fish out of water” teaching religious education at a Uniting Church school. But this experience helped her to evolve.
“It took me out of my comfort zone and forced me to draw from deeper wisdom and deeper research to make sense of what it meant to teach religion,” she says.
“It also made me question a lot of things: ‘Who am I? What am I?’ At the same time, the things I was learning through my master’s degree allowed me to see all sorts of opportunities. My use of language was changing, and I was able to express my ideas more clearly and more confidently. I felt like I had wind beneath my feet, and that feeling was really life-giving.”
A leader in the making
Buoyed by her success in her studies and her work, Linda Di Sipio moved on to greater things.
She secured her first leadership role in religious education at Aitken College, another Uniting Church school.
Then, in 2013, having completed her master’s degree at ACU, Linda took on another leadership role at St Columba’s College, a girls’ school founded by the Sisters of Charity.
After a decade away from Catholic education, the move felt like a homecoming of sorts for Linda. But it was not without its challenges.
In her two previous teaching roles, and also through her studies, Linda had become engrossed with scripture and the power of story.
“What I’d learnt amongst the Uniting Church community was a love of reading the Bible and discussing it freely with others,” Linda says. “When I came back into Catholic education, this type of dialogue was not occurring as freely amongst the staff and students in religious education classes. This puzzled me, so I sought advice from an ACU academic who I had once studied with, and he recommended I consider the use of imaginative contemplation as a means to invite teachers into this dialogical space.”
At the same time, a new religious education methodology was emerging in the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, termed ‘Pedagogy of Encounter’. This method encouraged teachers of religious education to facilitate a deeper exploration of religious issues and content, in a way that suited a diverse and multi-faith audience.
As an enthusiastic supporter of this approach, Linda led the way in promoting its benefits.
“At St Columba’s, I began to use imaginative contemplation to discover the power of story through scripture, and its ability to foster opportunities for religiously-motivated dialogue to begin to unfold new realities,” she says.
“When you invite the audience to enter into a story or a Bible passage contemplatively drawing on their imagination, it makes the story come alive, and that’s an extremely powerful tool — both in the classroom and in life.”
Drawing out wisdom
Over the course of more than a decade, imaginative contemplation has played a big role in Linda Di Sipio’s professional and faith journey.
In time, she began to explore its potential in more depth. Through her association with ACU, she was encouraged to engage in action research on imaginative contemplation, resulting in her first academic publication: an article titled Teacher Readiness: A Pedagogy of Encounter, published alongside world leaders in the field of religious education.
Linda’s paper analysed teachers’ experiences with imaginative contemplation and religiously-motivated dialogue in the classroom. It was so well-received that she was invited to give a presentation of her findings in Malta, at the inaugural International Conference on Catholic Religious Education in Schools.
“That really caught me by surprise, to be honest, because I never would’ve thought that could’ve happened to me,” says Linda, who on her return from Malta enrolled in a Master of Spiritual Direction, a course she has since completed.
She was caught by surprise again in 2019, when she had what she calls “another divine experience”, securing a role as Formation and Mission Leader at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne.
Her main task is to provide opportunities for staff to deepen their understanding of St Vincent’s Hospital’s mission and values, and how it influences them in the workplace.
“I’m deeply connected to St Vincent’s through my awareness of the encounters I have at the hospital,” she says. “I see it as a really important goal of mine to provide experiences for staff to connect with the essence of the organisation’s mission and values.”
In 2021, Linda played a major role in securing a partnership between St Vincent’s and ACU, which will support hospital staff to develop and implement a trauma-informed model of care, prioritising First Nations peoples’ understanding of health.
“We want to humanise the medical encounter by deepening our understanding of the Aboriginal health model and the Western biomedical model,” says Linda, who adds that the hospital chose to partner with ACU for its understanding of both the medical and spiritual dimensions of the project.
“We envisage that this information will be valuable to the hospital, in helping us to incorporate a deeper understanding of the principles of trauma-informed care in our practices.”
Linda often reflects on her own development, which has enabled her to gain deeper understandings of herself. Over the years, her studies in religious education and spiritual direction have helped her to encounter and articulate her own sense of purpose.
“My learning journey at ACU has given me the confidence to express myself, to draw from the wisdom of my cultural background and my own lived experience, and to enjoy storytelling as a method of communicating,” she says.
“I liken it to the uncoiling of a tree fern – uncoiling myself slowly and quietly until I’m finally able to stand tall and proud.”
And her Italian community? Well, they’re proud of her, too.
“In hindsight, it was never my community that held me back … I think it was just my own self-doubt and my own expectations of what I thought I should be,” Linda admits.
“I’m very grateful to ACU for the opportunities it offered that enabled me to grow as a person and a professional, and I know that my family and my community is very proud of me, too.”
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