Garry Watts on the joys, friendships and impact of APTEA over 25 years

Garry Watts, graduate of Swinburne's Applied Social Psychology

Applied Social Psychology graduate Garry Watts created an enduring legacy for hundreds of Eastern European graduates. He shares the joy, friendships and impact of his years working with the Australian Program of Training for Eurasia (APTEA).

"I was always fascinated with how people interact and the nature of motivation. Studying psychology at Swinburne, I relished the opportunity to understand people and personalities. The teaching staff were a huge influence on me - we had fantastic arguments that shaped the way I engaged with people throughout the rest of my life.

1991 was a time of global political and economic change. Australia was grappling with its identity after celebrating its bicentennial year, and Communism was the controlling ideology for many Eastern European countries.

"I have very fond memories of singing Beatles songs, going to the football, the beach and the horse racing, and attending business excursions together."

When travelling on the Trans-Siberian railway in 1969, I passed through many Eastern European countries and was intrigued by their significant cultural differences. Individual freedom was frowned upon and a focus on customer needs was not a commonly held attitude. Consequently, local economies were poor and run-down. I remember one fellow saying of his government, ‘they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.’ 

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 changed everything, and was the catalyst for the establishment of APTEA, an Australian Government Fellowship. When the opportunity came, I was highly motivated to be part of this change.

There was a huge opportunity to educate young professionals from central and eastern Europe and make a difference in their transition to the market economy. Professor Murray Frazer saw Swinburne's involvement as a strategic move towards internationalisation, and he was a strong supporter of mine. I can’t thank him enough for his support.

The students were remarkable. Representatives from Hungary, Czech Republic, Russia, Poland, the Baltic States and Central Asia, were among those ambitious enough to leave their jobs, family and friends to travel across the world and create better opportunities for themselves. Most had young families, so to ask them to leave everything and come to Australia for 12 months was a huge commitment.

The APTEA fellows completed a Graduate Certificate of Business Administration and a work placement. Because we were all of a similar age, our relationship was much deeper than for normal student and teacher. Many of the teaching staff generously invited the students to their homes for meals to give them first-hand experience of life in Australia. I have very fond memories of singing Beatles songs, going to the football, the beach and the horse racing, and attending business excursions together.

After they completed their course, the Fellows were encouraged to go back to their home country to build their businesses. The graduates formed the APTEA Alumni Chapter, to help students stay in touch, transition to life back home and share the impact of their Swinburne experience on their businesses.

We had originally planned to run the chapter for three years. But the program was so successful and the Fellows so enthusiastic that in 2016 we celebrated 25 years of APTEA alumni at our biennial congress, which is held in a different country every two years. The program had a huge impact on me and I’m so thankful for the friendships and connections I made."