In 2023 Bond University marks 20 years of the Vynka Hohnen Scholarship, awarded annually to an outstanding student from Western Australia. The scholarship is named in memory of Vynka Hohnen (Class of 1995) and the inaugural recipient was Polly Banks (Class of 2004), featured in edition 32 of the Arch magazine.
On March 3, 2023, a state of emergency was declared in Vanuatu after Category 4 Cyclone Kevin unleashed gale-force winds and torrential rain on the Pacific nation.
Port Vila had already been battered by Cyclone Judy earlier that week when winds exceeding 230km/h tore through the capital city, cutting power and forcing evacuations.
Several weeks later, Polly Banks (Class of 2004) arrived to steer the massive clean-up operation as Country Director for the region’s largest non-government organisation, Save the Children.
It was familiar territory for the inaugural Vynka Hohnen Scholar, who is serving her second stint as the organisation’s most senior expat in the Pacific, having previously been stationed in the Solomon Islands in 2014 in the wake of devastating flash-flooding that killed 22 people and left more than 9000 homeless.
“There will be a lot of disaster recovery for the first nine months of my posting, but I am very familiar with that,” Ms Banks says.
“A week after I arrived in the Solomon Islands they were hit by one of the worst-ever floods to have affected the capital, and Save the Children was one of the main NGOs in a position to respond to that.”
As a 17-year-old from Carine Senior High School in Perth’s Northern Suburbs, Ms Banks saw the Vynka Hohnen Scholarship as an interstate adventure and a first-class education.
It evolved into an around-the-world ticket, with each stamp in her passport representing a life-changing experience for Ms Banks and the hundreds of thousands of people her projects have assisted. “I think Bond and the scholarship opened my eyes very early on. It was really the most pivotal moment in my life.”
The Vanuatu posting is a return to Save the Children for Ms Banks who has also managed the charity’s operations in Western Australia’s remote Kimberley region, supported families interned at the Manus Island Processing Centre, and overseen the global operations of the organisation’s social enterprise arm Library for All.
Her humanitarian career was jumpstarted when she was one of two Australians selected for a United Nations internship program in New York where she joined the team preparing a report for the General Secretary on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.
“That was a really key moment in my career and such an amazing point in history to be based in New York working at the UN,” she says.
Scattered throughout her career is time in Kathmandu working for international microfinance organisation Kiva, which provides interest-free loans to people from impoverished countries to start microenterprises, and three stints in local government.
As the General Manager of Community at the City of Darwin, she managed a team of 100 people that oversaw the city’s libraries, community and cultural development services, recreational and regulatory services.
But her skills in large-scale relief projects would once again be in demand, this time courtesy of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Darwin at any point in time has about 1000 people experiencing homelessness and sleeping rough, particularly people visiting from country that wouldn't themselves identify as being homeless because they have a home back on country,” she says.
“But suddenly with Covid-19 that presented a big risk to those people, and it was part of my job to reduce that risk and support my team of staff to help community members get back to country.”
In Vanuatu, where she manages a staff of 60 people, the primary programs centre around education, child protection and climate change adaptation.
“We are the first big NGO to tap into the Green Climate Fund in the Pacific and that will lead to a lot of work helping communities to adapt to climate change,” she says.
“For some that might mean developing a plan to relocate their village higher up; in others it will be building things to protect them from sea surge when there are cyclones or storms or tsunamis.
“About 50 per cent of the population are directly affected by climate change. Vanuatu is on that ring of fire, so it is earthquake-prone, very volcanic, very cyclone and flood-prone, and the sea levels are rising.”
Ms Banks enrolled in International Relations and Journalism at Bond with an eye on a career as a foreign correspondent. (Another Vynka Hohnen scholar, Annelise Nielsen (Class of 2008), is Washington Correspondent for Sky News Australia.)
However, it was a stint as an intern at a newspaper in Vietnam she secured after a trip with her international relations class at Bond that set Ms Banks on the path she now acknowledges was her true calling.
“I was able to work in a developing country which was about to explode in its economic development,” she says.
“I started to really see the opportunities for working in that space abroad. I've worked in lots of different places.
“We've been on the move pretty much every two years for 20 years, and that desire to explore new horizons and seize every opportunity all began at Bond.’’