Kate McIlwain

Rekindling college life – International House and Weerona reunions

Kate McIlwain – September 2010

With two UOW college reunions coming up at the end of year, we take a look back at the beginnings of International House and Weerona – and share some memories with International House Manager from 1980-1987, Liz Hilton and current Student Residence Manager of Weerona, Leanne Robinson.

UOW will celebrate two milestones at its residences this year with International House celebrating 30 years in University ownership and Weerona marking 20 years since it became an independent college.

All past and current Weerona and International House residents are encouraged to help celebrate.

International House was bought by the University in 1980 – and will celebrate its 30th anniversary on November 27.

International House was originally run by the YMCA as accommodation for miners. It also had an academic affiliation as a residential hall of the former Wollongong University College which preceded UOW. When it was handed over to the University in 1979 it became the first official University of Wollongong student residence, closely followed by the opening of Kooloobong – located on the UOW campus.

On November 20, Weerona will mark the 20th anniversary of its operation as an independently administered residence.

The University’s third student residence began its association with UOW 24 years ago – in 1986 – when it was acquired from BHP which had used the building as a staff hostel for steelworkers.

It was renovated for student use and 96 students moved in for the start of 1987. It was officially opened on June 4 that year by the then Speaker of the NSW Legislative Assembly and UOW Deputy Chancellor Laurie Kelly.

From 1987 to 1990 all three UOW residences (International House, Weerona and Kooloobong) were centrally managed from International House after Cynthia Halloran was appointed Head of Halls of Residence in 1986. Accommodation Officer Jann Counsell was appointed Head of Weerona and Deputy Head of Halls and – along with the many students who lived in the college – helped to establish a strong collegiate atmosphere in the residence during the first three years.

In 1990, Weerona became an independently administered residence and welcomed 200 new students after the completion of two new blocks at the end of 1989. Chancellor Robert Hope opened Weerona as an independent college on October 19, 1990.

Event details

Weerona and International House will each hold a reunion dinner and various other events, which will help alumni to get back in touch with each other and the University.

The International House reunion is on Saturday 27 November at Novotel Northbeach Wollongong from 7.00 – 11.30pm. Alumni also have the chance to stay a night at International House.

The Weerona anniversary events take place on Friday 19 and Saturday 20 November.

Liz Hilton – International House Deputy Manager and Manager 1980-88

When the University first bought International House in 1980 Liz Hilton was appointed as Deputy Warden Secretary Manager and lived on site in a small flat located at the residence. In 1983 she became the manager and lived and worked there until 1987.

With the state-of-the-art college facilities at the residence today Liz said it was hard to believe that International House started life as a “scruffy” run down hall needing everything from new beds, hot water systems and better security.

“There were keys all over Wollongong to get you into International House – because it cost too much to re-key the whole place every time someone left,” she said.

“The grease trap (in the kitchen) had never been emptied and the hot water boilers all broke down. No one knew how to fix a boiler so we had no hot water for 200 students!

“So I went down to Port Kembla and asked the wharfies who fixed the boilers on the ships and they came and showed the boys how to service our water system. This all became part of the fabric of college life.”

As International House developed, Liz said the quality of the accommodation slowly improved.

“Every year we did something – put new beds in, got hot water and hoses in the bathrooms.

“I made all the bathrooms co-ed – and that altered the behaviour of the house. The girls on their own left bathrooms in an appalling condition! If you put the two together everyone behaves extraordinarily well.”

“We had the most wonderful group of cleaners with the noisiest vacuum cleaners in the Southern Hemisphere. The cleaners were mentors to the students. They would alert me to students who were struggling because they were really close to them.

“Now the colleges are properly run and they pull together as a community, with a big focus on charities. There is lots of support – whereas we were a bit ad hoc.”

Despite makeshift facilities Liz remembers that International House had a fierce community spirit that shone in good times, and especially when things went wrong.

“We had two major disasters early on and – it’s awful but that really binds a community together. One of the really popular American students became a paraplegic in a car accident and then three of our students from New Jersey were killed in a minibus accident in Gympie. It was just awful.

“Our insurance at that time had loopholes that didn’t cover things like moving their things back to Wollongong or embalming their bodies to be sent back to America. So the whole community came together.

“i98fm said they could help us, North ’Gong pub put on an afternoon with a bucket collection and the ladies of Bulli Hospital Kitchen came in with money that they’d collected.

“And the kids put on a band night at the Union Hall where all the bands played for free. I sat up on the balcony and cried. Something like that really brings a community together. The students were fiercely loyal.

“It was a joy really, a real joy. People I have spoken to that are coming to the reunion have such a rosy coloured view of it – they had such a lovely time.”

Leanne Robinson, Student Residence Manager

Leanne Robinson started working in administration at Weerona in 1990 – the year it became an independent college. Like Liz at International House Leanne was there in the foundation years when the college was finding its feet and facilities were much more basic than the comfortable lifestyle college students now enjoy.

“In the first six or seven years my impression was that I’d walked into a bomb site. There were no partitions in the bathrooms and a mud car park that would flood when it rained…” Leanne said.

“It was just me, a cleaner and a chef. It felt like just me and the students. But I’d come from a career in banking so it was all just so much fun!”

Leanne left Weerona to work at Campus East in the late 1990s and then returned as Manager in 2003. She has seen a significant amount of change in the last 20 years – but said some things remained constant.

“Physically Weerona is quite different 20 years on, but students are students. The students then were willing to help out with anything and it’s the same now. There was always a great community spirit and that is our focus at Weerona.”

Students take part in many charity events and fundraisers, like the recent relay for life, an upcoming Pink Breakfast to raise money for breast cancer research and an annual Girls’ Night In.

“We also have Gidget – our Assistance Dog puppy that we are helping to train – who comes to stay with us a few days a week,” Leanne said.

“This is not only a really worthy cause that we’re supporting – it also gives the students, many of whom have had to leave their pets at home, a chance to interact and play with a pet while they’re at college.

“We try to make living at college cosy, comforting and stable. And the students are stable too – you know you’ll always have a good underpinning of students who are interested in getting involved.”

Leanne has made Weerona her life for the past eight years, living in close quarters with the students in a house adjoining the student blocks.

“Sometimes the students don’t realise that this is my home too. I’m there 24 hours a day – and there are times when it’s noisy or rowdy. They’re surprised to see me walking around at 2am,” she said.

“But being part of a unique organisation like the University has been a cornerstone in my life.”

Leanne’s dedication to her students hasn’t gone unnoticed, with many of them – even those she met in 1990 – staying in touch and thanking her for her support during their University years.

“Just this week I went to the first exhibition of one of my senior residents. The idea for the exhibition was that he took photos of people who had been important to him – and he asked me to be in a photo.”

Another student, Matthew Granger lived at Weerona in 2003 and fondly remembers Leanne’s contribution to his University experience.

“All of the staff have taken on a kind of cult status in my rosy memory and Leanne was always there when a student needed her – whether it was during important meetings or at 3am,” Matthew said.

Leanne said that the reunion would be “an eye-opener” for her and the students.

“It will be wonderful to catch up with alumni and it will be lovely for them to be together.

“There are lots of people who met their life partners at Weerona and it will be great to see how many Weerona babies there are out there.”


If anyone has photographs they would like to contribute – or specific details about the photos shown – for the reunions please send to