This month, we hear from Duong Lieu, a passionate financial counsellor who works out of a homelessness service centre in western suburbs of Melbourne. Duong has generously shared with us his journey into financial counselling, some of his most valuable resources, and some great book and music recommendations, along with the fantastic quote “when you’re doing the work you’re meant to do, it feels right and every day is a bonus, regardless of what you’re getting paid.“. Thank you, Duong, for such an enlightening interview!
Please tell us about your career background.
I was an entrepreneur at eighteen years of age, in my first year at university. I got the top score for my thesis and graduated as a mechanical engineer. I worked at the university and in manufacturing for about three years then moved to Melbourne for post-grad study. I got two post-grad degrees in Accounting and Commerce. I furthered my interest in taxation and corporation law for another six months in Sydney before moving back to Melbourne.
Over these years, my working life consisted of a variety of full-time and part-time side jobs, namely trading, coaching the youth, tutoring, engineering, commercial cooking, waiting, customer service, vocational training, and managing.
I am now practising financial counselling in western suburbs of Melbourne. May I quote a great line from a Steve Jobs’ speech that “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” All the above roles have equipped me with the skills and knowledge I need for my current job.
What motivated you to pursue financial counselling?
Financial counselling is not just a job but is my answer to a vocation.
A character in a TV series I watched said he wanted to become a teacher, but he eventually chose a career in government, and it made his life miserable and everyone around him miserable in order to earn five thousand dollars more a year. He said this when he couldn’t make it through that day. I am grateful for being the luckier one when I found financial counselling at the end of 2017.
Back then, I did foundation skills training as a side gig for a community college. During those years, I met many, many people from diverse cohorts. These people are new arrivals to Australia, people living with chronic illnesses, residents of caravan parks, and people who had been released into communities from detention centres, etc. The job was to train them, but I found I learned a lot from them as well. I learned how they faced adversities with strength. Therefore, I usually found myself staying after class to discuss evictions, debts, disputes… I pondered on what other ways these people could be treated justly and get the fairness they deserved.
My first contact was to the Department of Justice, and they pointed me to their mediation training course to become a mediator. I read through the enrolment pack they sent. I felt not right. Mediation was not the answer I was looking for. In a moment of magic, I came across Financial Counselling Australia’s website. The thread led me to the Diploma course. I was studying enthusiastically while managing four retail stores and training people. About two thirds of way through the course, I collapsed and was taken to hospital for a night. The doctors advised the workload had to drop. I eventually left the other two jobs for financial counselling. Oprah Winfrey used to say, “when you’re doing the work you’re meant to do, it feels right and every day is a bonus, regardless of what you’re getting paid.” This resonates with me.
What are the unique aspects of your role or the area you work in?
I am a bilingual financial counsellor, working out of a homelessness service centre in western suburbs of Melbourne.
Essentially, the additional language takes my service closer to the communities, and I can explain it in a way that is familiar to their lives. It builds trust and removes barriers to some communities’ and individuals’ access to the service.
Interestingly, one senior staffer of a big bank said to me recently that it’s quite common for couples of ethnic groups to live at the same address after a divorce. My bilingual background helps raise awareness to reduce this kind of generalisation and helps stakeholders communicate in a culturally appropriate way.
Last but not least, working in a homelessness service exposes me to multifaceted journeys of life. I have gained an invaluable understanding of underlying causes of homelessness. In return, I deliver a service that is relevant to people’s needs.
What has been your proudest achievement to date?
I always remind myself it’s a privilege to be able to sit in with a person and hear their stories, which they are afraid to share with their intimate partner or mum or dad. The proudest achievement to date is people of community still entrust their sensitive matters to my service and knowing my work has an impact on their lives.
It’s so gratifying to receive a phone call from a ninety-six-year-old lady who said “I was sitting in the sun, and I thought of you. I phoned you just to say thank-you.“
Another very satisfying moment was when a corporate officer announced their long pursuit of proofs had ceased and finally accepted my client’s Family Violence story, despite multiple testimonies from various agencies. My client had experienced enslavement and the complete deprivation of all her rights, so she was greatly relieved when the creditor ceased their harassment.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the financial counselling sector?
I am assessing financial counselling under three domains adopted from a philosophy statement of an early childhood education centre: Curious, Competent and Brave. Each one of these words exposes the financial counselling sector to several challenges.
Let just talk about Brave.
Are we, financial counsellors brave? Of course, yes.
Do we continue to be brave when we hold onto and defend basic human rights, that are the founding bedrock of Financial Counselling? Are the interests of the people we’re representing always at the centre of our conversations with them, with credit providers, with our own employers, and with our funders?
I have a fear. The fear is that if the interests of the people we serve are off-centre for any reason, such as organisational directions or funding requirements, the trust of the communities and the uniqueness of financial counselling will be lost.
What has been the most valuable resource or advice you’ve received?
A retired financial counsellor phoned me on her last day at work and left me with this advice “there’s always something we can do for our clients.” I have never received any other advice more succinct than this one.
Many people in our community live a life of struggle and deprivation. They often lack access to stable housing and food. When it comes to support, these members of our community often hear there is nothing others can do to help them. In fact, a chat that validates their struggles can offer them hope and bring about some immediate relief. There’s always something we can do for them.
I recommend the book “The Pursuit of Justice” by Michael Finnane QC. I have learned a great deal of advocacy from this book, particularly the chapter “Advocacy“. In this chapter, the author wrote “human beings like pictures and find it easier to understand if a barrister shows them a picture, diagram or object.” This has influenced my current practice profoundly.
What book are you reading at the moment?
“Jacinda Ardern – New kind of leader” by Madeleine Chapman.
The author explains why Ms Ardern’s compassion is praised by communities around the globe ” Ardern invited those she encountered to project their worries and struggles onto her, and in return she projected understanding and support.“
Thich Nhat Hanh, a great Vietnamese and global spiritual leader, once said “compassion is a verb“. Many leaders talk about compassion and as many also fail to cultivate it.
Do you have a favourite musician?
I always find love and peace in Diana Krall’s music. Imagining as the day winds down, I am sinking in “Just the way you are” and gently falling asleep. It’s heaven!
P/S: to financial counselling, “I’ll take you just the way you are” and “You always have my unspoken passion.” (Diana Krall)