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Humans of UNSW Law – Marco Olea, Teaching Fellow (UNSW Law)

What makes you passionate about teaching? What drives this passion?

I was born in the Philippines during the Marcos regime. Due to his military role in fighting corruption, my father was assassinated when I was 9 months old. A year later, my mother brought my sister and I to Australia on her own, where we eventually settled in south-west Sydney.  Take my word for it, 1990s Campbelltown was not the best place for an ethnic single mother to raise a couple of brown kids.

I originally entered university with the really abstract goal of “wanting to help people”, hence my original studies in psychology. After being burnt out from an intense honours year, I spent 9 months working with Indigenous communities in Latin-America in order to get away from all things intellectual. Long story short, I saw the poorest of the poor who had absolutely nothing. But they still proudly owned the smiles on their faces.

When I came back to Sydney, I tried to think of a way to really make a difference, in the non-abstract nor naïve sense. And I saw the law as the means to do so. I really did, and still do. In terms of trying to find my place in the law and how I personally could make a difference, I found it in teaching. I can make a difference by helping students make a difference.

As a teacher, what I really hope the students realise is that it’s all about you and not us. We, each in our own direct or indirect way, try to move students’ minds forward, even just a little bit.

What was the best part of law school when you were a student?

Learning something new and being confronted with things I didn’t understand or agree with, and to try to disentangle and understand “the why”. You learn plenty of interesting things in law school but, to me, if it didn’t have any real world implications or greater significance, then I wasn’t personally invested.

There’s an old saying, “Never teach the way you were taught, but in the way you would want to be taught”.

You’re a very busy person but you remain sane through all of it. How do you stay on top of everything?

Do what you love. If you don’t, make sure your path is a product of your own choice. Never let others dictate how you should live your life, who you should be, or where you should go.  What I try to show all my students is that we are the architects of our own fate, and we have the ability to choose. If I’m doing something I don’t enjoy, I take responsibility for that and try to see what I can do about it. In so much as you want to help people, you have to try to put yourself first at times.

What was the process like for you in truly finding your passion?

It is always trial and error. “Call no man happy until he’s dead,” –  you can never say you’re truly happy and found what you’re passionate about. Life is a series of moments, live in this one. Right now, I enjoy what I do. Right now, I’m passionate about what I do. However, that may change, and when that point does come around, and so too will I. It took me a long time to realise you always have the freedom of choice.

Many students study law in hopes of making a difference but at times it can be demoralising when we see the law creates injustices. What do you think about that?

Cynicism is a prototypical form of critical thought. While the cynic may accept the way the world is, the critical thinker seeks to change it. And that inherently requires some sort of idealism. We don’t live in a vacuum and the law only works if men and women accept it as legitimate. If something is unjust, then try to do something about it. Easier said than done, but the world needs people willing to try.


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