When Aneta Peretko’s parents left Poland in 1996, they would never have dreamed their six-year-old daughter would one day walk the halls of the US Congress as an intern, or that she would take centre stage as the former US Ambassador to Australia received an honorary doctorate at Flinders University.
Nor could they have foreseen that she would win an international undergraduate award from the Golden Key Society, or an Endeavour Australia Cheung Kong Award that would see her spend a semester studying in Hong Kong.
The softly spoken Ms Peretko conveys her achievements with a disarming lack of hubris, moving matter-of-factly from describing how she learned things about politics ‘that you will never read in a textbook’ during her US internship, to explaining how she won the Cheung Kong Endeavour award and went to Hong Kong.
In a three-minute speech at former Ambassador Jeffrey Bleich’s graduation ceremony on Tuesday, she thanked those who had made her internship possible, in particular Professor Don Debats, and spoke of how she returned to Australia with a newfound confidence and clear direction about what she wanted to do with her life.
The audience also heard from another student who participated in the Washington Internship Program, Jesse Barker Gale, who is now a PhD candidate in American Studies at Flinders.
Sitting on a bench in Flinders University’s main plaza, Ms Peretko heaped further praise on Flinders for the opportunities made available to her, and urged her fellow students to take full advantage of them.
“When I started university, I thought internships and travel only happened to other students, and not to people like me, but Flinders has so many programs and opportunities in place for students to take advantage of,” she said.
“I would urge other students not to put limits on themselves, to do their research and to engage with the university, because my experiences have changed my life and there is no reason why they can’t have the same opportunities.”
Partly because of her own experience of coming to Australia as an immigrant, Ms Peretko is an advocate for the rights of asylum seekers, and volunteers her personal time to help and mentor people who come to Australia without friends or family to support them.
She is also working on her Honours thesis, which explores Australian foreign policy, and in particular the question of whether Australia will eventually be forced to choose between an alliance with the US or China.
In the longer term, she said she wants to help improve the lives of ordinary people by working in public law, which is the area of law which governs the relationship between individuals and the government.
“I’m coming towards the end of a Bachelor of International Studies (Honours), Bachelor of Laws and Legal Practice, and working as a paralegal for the South Australian Government, but I’d really like to work in the area of public law and make a positive contribution,” she said.
“I’d also like to go on and complete a PhD at some stage.”