Where Are They Now – James Coughlan

October 16, 2016

The College reconnects with James Coughlan (SPC 1964-72) who has spent his career researching social issues. The photo of James was taken at a regional forum on Non-‘Traditional Security in the People’s Republic of China-‘Australia Relations: ‘Glocal’ Issues of Common Concern, 1st Annual Dialogue Forum, held at Sun Yat ‘Sen University, Guang Zhou, Guang Dong, People’s Republic of China.

James Coughlan.


Where has life taken you since leaving SPC?

After matriculating from SPC in 1972, I attended the Australian National University in Canberra, completing a BSc (mathematics and physics) and a BA (sociology). I remained in Canberra for another eight years, working as a researcher in the Population Census and Demography Branch of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, occupied in the development and evaluation of the 1981 and 1986 population Censuses. In 1987, I moved to Griffith University, Brisbane, where I worked as researcher in the then Faculty of Modern Asian Studies. Subsequently I was awarded a PhD scholarship at the University in 1990, and commenced my PhD in Asian and International Studies, which was completed in early 1994. In 1993, prior to submitting my doctoral dissertation, I was recruited as a lecturer in sociology at James Cook University, Townsville; I subsequently moved to the Cairns Campus of the University in 2000, where I remained until early retirement in 2013.- Presently in semi-retirement, I ‘work’ as an independent scholar in Thailand researching current social issues.

Apart from the above formal employment activities, I have also engaged in volunteer work in refugee camps in Malaysia and Thailand from the late 1970s until the mid-1980s, and volunteer work with several migrant communities in Brisbane during the late 1980s.

James Coughlan at a regional forum on Non-‘Traditional Security in the People’s Republic of China-‘Australia Relations: ‘Glocal’ Issues of Common Concern, 1st Annual Dialogue Forum, held at Sun Yat ‘Sen University, Guang Zhou, Guang Dong, People’s Republic of China.

What are your favourite memories of your time at St Patrick’s College?

My favourite memories of my time at SPC are associated with boat race day – seeing the old boys show up at the event attired in various elements of the SPC uniform.- We are not going to be that wild when we leave SPC, are we?

Which teacher from your time at SPC had the greatest impact on you? Why?

The two teachers which had the greatest impact upon me during my time at SPC had to be Brothers Ormond Wynne and Daniel Sexton.- When recalling Brother Wynne, the word -‘serenity’ comes to mind; he was caring, humble, kind and wise.- He was the father I wish I had.- Brother Sexton was energy and inspiration; how could I not have loved applied mathematics and physics in Forms 5 and 6 with him as my teacher? He was the older brother I never had.

How has your education shaped your professional life?

Education has clearly been my professional life, either as a university lecturer, or as a social researcher engaged in research which was aimed at educating the general public about issues of social concern or social responsibility.

How has your time at SPC shaped your personal values and your family life?

Probably the most important lessons I learnt at SPC were self-discipline and focussed study.- These certainly aided me in my university studies and professional life.

If you could pass on one message to the students of today, what would it be?

My advice to current students – have goals in life and have a passion for those goals, but be flexible; do not be afraid to change with the times, and to change as you develop and gain a greater understanding of yourself.


Footnote – For all of my high school years at SPC, I wanted to become an astronomer (influenced by the TV programs Star Trek and Dr Who).- But, I was always in the bottom one-third of the class.- Academically I did not do well in high school, but was good enough to be offered a position as a BSc student at both the Australian National University (ANU) and Monash University.- I accepted a position at the former, as the ANU had the largest optical telescopes in Australia at the time.- During, the first semester of my second year at the ANU, I failed both my physics subjects.- I knew then that I was not intelligent enough to be an astronomer, but I carried on and finished my BSc in three years.

While at the ANU I had many friends from many countries, but most of my friends were from Asia.- I thus developed an interest in Asian studies, so I enrolled in a BA (Asian Studies), taking political science and sociology as interest subjects (I had friends who had studied these subjects, and they ‘sounded’ interesting).  I now had a new goal and a new passion. Somehow, I still do not know how, I topped first year sociology and was invited to do a Masters Qualifying course in sociology. On completing of this one year of study, even with a Distinction average, I was not good enough to be invited to do a Masters degree.- I returned for another year of study at the ANU to complete a BA in sociology, with the aim of obtaining a research job in the Commonwealth Public Service, which I obtained.

While this work was interesting for the first for four to five years, boredom set in.- I needed more mental stimulation, so I started a part-time Graduate Diploma degree in Public Administration, and then another Graduate Diploma in Development Economics, with a view of working overseas. In the mid-1980s, still not feeling comfortable, I planned to travel to some Asian countries, to see if I could pick up some work; but first I wanted to visit the author of a book which I had recently read.

My first stop in my overseas travels was Brisbane (yes, I had not yet left Australia), I met the author of the book, Professor Nancy Viviani of Griffith University, and she offered me a job conducting research into the Indochinese (Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese) refugees in Australia.- This work lasted for three years, at the end of which Professor Viviani gently pushed me into doing a PhD degree; another new goal (obtaining a PhD) and a new passion (doing different research).

For the next decade, even when I was a lecturer at James Cook University, my goal in life was publishing and my passion was research.- But this passion waned, and a new passion developed; teaching.- For the remainder of my professional life, teaching was my passion, and making a positive difference in the lives of my students my goal.

Changing goals, changing passions.- My father left school at the age of 13 years old; for most of his life, until the day he died (September, 1978) he worked in the same profession as his father and grandfather – butcher.- I did not want to follow the family tradition; I had different goals, different passions.