George Zhao studied the Bachelor of Dramatic Art at Excelsia College and graduated in 2015. He’s been determined to pave a way in the acting industry and landed his breakout role as Andrew Law in SBS TV’s drama-comedy series The Family Law in 2016.


He also won the Rising Star Award at the Casting Guild of Australia (CGA) in 2018 and an MEAA (Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance) Best Ensemble Cast for comedy for his role in The Family Law. He’s also acted in the film Runaway Millionaires in 2019.


For George, it was a chance encounter in even finding out about Excelsia College (then Wesley Institute), after coming across the campus during a visit with a chaplain he was working for at the time. After deciding that Excelsia was the right fit for him, George enrolled in the Bachelor of Dramatic Art and was able to develop an in-depth insight into acting within a supportive and caring environment. ‘My lecturers didn’t shy away from the harshness of the industry that I would be going into.’


Through the guidance of his peers and teachers, George undertook a lot of self-discovery. ‘I learned a lot about myself and what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Excelsia was the perfect place to cultivate crafts.’ Excelsia College endeavors to know its students by name and not by number and George appreciated this close-knit community. ‘The classes were small and frequent and allowed me to develop strong relationships with my classmates. Eventually I saw my classmates as more than my family; they shared my worries, joys and passions.’


George describes Excelsia as ‘hopeful, community and love’. He continues, ‘The fact that Excelsia still stands as a recognised beacon of creativity and faith is a testament to the passion and care of those working in the institution.’


There’s no doubt George has worked hard to carve out roles for himself as he explains, ‘I am still in the acting industry, but with more bruises, scars and a grizzled adventure beard. Joking. I’m Asian, I couldn’t grow a beard if I paid for it.’ Most recently George starred in Gold Diggers, an ABC show set in Australia during the 1850s where he plays the love interest of the younger sister. He also performed in a one-man show at the Opera House called Yong by Monkey Baa Theatre Company.


If you’re curious about exploring a career in the creative and performing arts industry and want to learn from industry professionals, why not explore our Bachelor of Dramatic Art? You never know the foundations it could set for you like it did for George.

Excelsia College News | George Zhao – Acting his way to the top

Excelsia College loved celebrating with alumni at the College’s 40th anniversary celebrations on Saturday 5 August. It was such a special time of meeting together and seeing how far the College has come. Staff and alumni also spent time in worship and sung ‘Goodness of God’ and ‘What A Beautiful Name’, two songs that perfectly encapsulate God’s goodness and faithfulness throughout the four decades of the College.

Chief Executive Peter McKeon shared some words and reflections with the people gathered and gifts were exchanged including custom-made soy vanilla candles and Excelsia College’s 40th anniversary book, complete with 40 alumni stories.


Chris Cerinich, a 2006 Bachelor of Creative Arts Music Performance alumnus, found the event the perfect opportunity to worship with his classmates: ‘It was a great day out and a lovely way to reconnect with classmates I hadn’t seen in over 16 years,’ he explains.


Vonnie Ho, 2022 counselling graduate, likewise had a positive experience as she explained, ‘I felt so happy to be back at Excelsia College for a visit! It’s been so wonderful to see how the College has grown, get to know other alumni, and listen to their stories. I must say I had a “goosebumps” experience when we worshipped together; it made me miss the good old days of worshipping in College again!’


For Class of 2006 alumnus Kim Rodgers, it was a walk down memory lane, reconnecting with old classmates. ‘The open day was a vibrant atmosphere showcasing Excelsia as it is now and celebrating the past 40 years. It was a pleasure seeing photographs of old friends and reminiscing with those who were present, and it was a surprise to be treated to a high tea and gifts!’


Excelsia College is proud of the graduates who have gone out to positively impact the world and look forward to continuing to strive towards university college status.


You can view a pdf version of Excelsia College’s 40th anniversary book here.

Hailey McQueen (nee Barrett) studied her Bachelor of Creative Arts (Theatre Performance) from 2000 to 2002 and graduated in 2003 as valedictorian. Twenty years on and she is still firmly connected with Excelsia College!


Hailey knew she wanted to study acting after finishing school but to pursue her dreams she had to make the move from her hometown on the South Coast of New South Wales. ‘When a family friend recommended the College and after I attended an open day, I knew it was the place for me. I was drawn to the Christian environment, the caring and close-knit community, and the practical and comprehensive outline of the theatre performance course, says Hailey. Hailey describes the experience as ‘nothing short of life changing’ and became inspired by her lecturers who genuinely cared for and championed their students. ‘They created a safe environment for learning and personal development with lashings of grace that made me feel safe and valued. Their masterful example of driven, focused, and dedicated creative process helped me grow and introduced me to new ways of seeing the world. They continue to inspire me as an artist to approach my practice with excellence and empathy,’ explains Hailey.


Finding friendships when you’ve left your family and friends behind are essential and Hailey found deep and defining relationships. ‘Spending three years in close community with people who share a deep affinity with each other is rare and precious. I am so grateful for my classmates and the time we spent creating, laughing, and growing together – they have become family.’ Some of Hailey’s key highlights include naps and chats in the sun on the ‘grassy knoll’ at the College’s Drummoyne campus.


During her time as a student, Hailey was gifted with opportunities to build skills in leadership and creative collaboration. ‘I was encouraged in my spiritual formation and inspired to explore my own unique creative practice in a safe environment. It has allowed me to become a “maker”, to solve problems, make headway on personally meaningful goals, and complete challenging projects with humility and empathy.’ Since graduating, Hailey has worked in a number of roles, from acting across the stage and screen to working as a producer and director for independent shows across Sydney. She is also co-founder and artistic director of Clock and Spiel Productions. For Hailey, however, one of her greatest roles has been lecturing in the drama department at Excelsia for the past 15 years. ‘It’s a privilege to work alongside the students, advocating for them as unique artists and encouraging them in their creative endeavours.


When reflecting on the College turning 40, Hailey’s attention turns to those that have gone before and paved the way for this landmark occasion to be reached, including David Johnston, whose vision for a creative arts college set it all in motion. ‘Their creativity, tenacity and sacrifice in building such a vision, through the highs and lows, is to be honoured and celebrated. We would not have such a life-defining education and community without them. They built a strong community, a family of people who are still cheering each other on today.’


If you want to find out more about our creative and performing arts courses, please visit our website,

Excelsia College News | Hailey McQueen (nee Barrett) – From student to teacher

Lusi Austin (nee Vuki) is one busy woman. She’s a musician, a scriptwriter, magazine article writer, vintage and retro shop owner, all whilst homeschooling her five children for the past 15 years and sharing about the journey on her website That Homeschool Life. Before all these pursuits, Lusi studied a Bachelor of Creative Arts in Drama at Excelsia College from 1999 to 2001. She was valedictorian and graduated in April 2002. Lusi remembers having a very real faith journey whilst at Excelsia College as she explains, ‘I had met Jesus in a real way only a year or two before I heard about Wesley Institute (now Excelsia College). At that time, I felt that studying in my chosen field whilst still learning about my new faith would be a great thing to combine.’


Amongst Lusi’s highlights during her time studying were the moments spent at the weekly Gathering service. ‘It was an amazing time for collective worship and encouragement. There were so many people in the one room from different faith backgrounds and faith expressions. There was something very sacred about that,’ says Lusi. She also relished her Old Testament and New Testament classes which she says have been formative as she’s continued on with her life and faith post College. ‘We were also blessed to have incredibly gifted lecturers who had lived experiences in our industry. They shared their knowledge with us and I am incredibly grateful to them for the instruction they gave me in the dramatic arts,’ says Lusi.


Lusi also found she developed her holistic wellbeing at the College. ‘Spiritually, I had a solid foundation to stand on. Emotionally, I made some of the most incredible connections with friends, especially in the drama department. At that time, I had also moved out of home for the very first time so it gave me the confidence and opportunity to begin a new chapter of independence for me. I was equipped with knowledge and experiences that were invaluable to me as a young actor.’


College can be a time where students’ eyes are opened to confronting themes and new ideas and this was something Lusi explored in a play performed with her fellow classmates called Back From Nowhere which dealt with teen suicide. This play was toured to schools and the Opera House Studio. She also forged significant friendships with her drama peers, students in other subjects and her lecturers. She also met both her best friend and future husband Brett during those days of College nearly 23 years ago! Lusi was also living in Sydney whilst studying in 2000 at the time of the Sydney Olympics which she says was pretty special.


Fast forward 21 years since graduating and Lusi has written and published a children’s picture book called Jack’s Visit to Cowra, a story designed to inform children about the Cowra prisoner of war (POW) breakout in an accessible and easy to understand way. She is currently working on a novella. Lusi has also released a solo studio-recorded EP called Walking Contradiction. On top of that, she is currently producing a play called Intertwined which she wrote and will direct.


On reflection of the College’s anniversary celebrations, Lusi says, ‘Happy birthday Excelsia College! You keep a lovely little space in my mind and I am grateful for the chance to have attended. I appreciate learning about performance in a small College-style setting. I will always be grateful for those years.’

Excelsia College News | Lusi Austin (nee Vuki) – Lusi Austin (nee Vuki) – A woman that embodies creativity

Ruth Kost decided to enrol in the Bachelor of Music at Excelsia College in 2011 after realising her calling for playing piano. From the get-go, she found Excelsia’s environment very welcoming. ‘I felt like everybody – both staff and students – wanted to help each other succeed,’ explains Ruth.


Throughout her time at Excelsia, Ruth loved the opportunities to perform not only her instrument, but also to branch out into ensembles including choir. ‘Being a classical pianist, I would spend most of my time alone practising my instrument and performing solo. Choir was the first time I was able to perform with other musicians and I discovered a love for it.’ Ruth was able to take the ‘Choir Tour’ subject and travelled to Europe where she performed in different countries, as well as a choir competition in Vienna where Excelsia placed second. The choir also performed with the Strathfield Symphony Orchestra (Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and Bach’s Mass in B Minor). ‘These experiences helped me to develop a deeper understanding and interpretation of music, which I now use to help guide my own students.’ Excelsia also provided Ruth with the opportunity to perform at various locations she had never played before such as the Sydney Opera House and Balmain Presbyterian, as well as prepare and perform in numerous recitals at the College.


Excelsia also helped Ruth feel more comfortable in her Christian faith and in her knowledge that other people share similar beliefs. Her favourite Bible verse is Deuteronomy 31:6 which says, ‘Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.’


After graduating from the Bachelor of Music in 2015, Ruth decided to further her studies and began her Master of Music at the College that same year. She wasn’t exactly sure what her end goal was going to be; she just knew she wanted to keep studying music. During her masters, she studied part-time and began teaching piano, which she enjoyed more and more.


Since graduating in 2020, Ruth has gone on to become a full-time piano teacher. Her favourite part of teaching is seeing her students’ joy when they realise they can finally tackle a difficult passage or grasp a technique they hadn’t been able to before. ‘Not only do I get to spend my time working with music, but I also have the privilege of teaching some hilarious kids as well. Kids have such an amazing sense of humour and I try to make my lessons as enjoyable as possible so they will grow to love the piano and music as much as I do.’


Reflecting on the College turning forty, Ruth says, ‘Excelsia has come a long way from when I started back in 2011. In my nine years studying, I have not only seen it grow into a more nurturing community but also improve its quality of education.’


If you want to foster your passion for music and be taught within a supportive learning environment where you can choose to explore more than one instrument and be involved in ensembles, why not consider Excelsia College’s Bachelor of Music or Master of Music?

Excelsia College News | Ruth Kost – On becoming in tune to her passion for music

Want to see someone who’s aiming for the sky? For one Excelsia College alumnus, her career is quite literally getting off the ground! Esther Williams was cast as the lead actress in the Virgin Airlines Bring on Wonderful Campaign in 2022. The effervescent 24-year-old graduated from Excelsia College’s Bachelor of Dramatic Art in 2020 and is picking up momentum as she pursues a career in the performing arts.


‘I decided to study at Excelsia to deepen my techniques in acting. The second I walked into Excelsia College during open day, I remember everyone being super welcoming and I fell in love with the facilities such as the theatre, dressing rooms and costume storage,’ explains Esther.


For Esther, her experience at Excelsia went above and beyond her expectations. ‘It feels more like family and everyone looks out for one another. Some of my dearest friends I’ve made at Excelsia are people I still see frequently to this day. The teachers are exceptional with so much knowledge and care for their students.’


Before studying at Excelsia, Esther found it difficult to trust in herself and her abilities and lacked personal awareness. ‘With the three years of coaching from some of the best acting, voice and movement teachers in Sydney, I was able to break through many shells and discover myself in a completely new way.’ Since graduating, Esther has signed to an agent and has been cast on Netflix series Heartbreak High, as well as in a couple of theatre plays. 


The budding actress’s personal highlight was producing her own show in her third year of studies. ‘I played Miss Pat from The Coloured Museum by George C. Wolfe (one of my favourite monologues to date). It was a magical experience putting something on stage that I was so passionate about and having full control over all aspects of the production. I learned so much,’ she says.


Esther is thankful for her time at Excelsia and for having played a small part in the College’s journey. ‘I have experienced firsthand just how passionate Excelsia is about growing and improving the College every year. They take feedback from their students very seriously. Forty years is a huge milestone and I only see great things happening on top of all that the College has already achieved. Go Excelsia!’


If you want to extend yourself and learn from industry professionals with years of experience behind them, why not consider Excelsia College’s creative and performing arts courses? Like Esther, you never know where you might end up!


Excelsia College News | Esther Williams’ future is looking sky high!

It was the College’s commitment to delivering a Christian world view through coursework and reflective practice that first attracted Nada Appleby to a Master of Teaching (Secondary) at Excelsia College.


For Nada, the onsite workshops as part of the Master of Teaching (Secondary) course were a key highlight, as was the ability to study remotely with an online community. ‘The flexibility and support were wonderful, and the lecturers were highly relational and approachable and they clearly had a passion for Christian education which was inspiring. I feel so privileged to have met a variety of inspiring educators during my time at Excelsia. The staff were an unbelievable support during placement opportunities and lecturers displayed a gentle, relational approach, which is something I have tried to imitate in my own teaching style,’ she explains.


‘It was wonderful to sit under quality teaching and reflect on educational theories through the lens of the Bible. The course gave me practical, lifelong skills in the area of critical reflection and the skills for bringing a Christian world view through my teaching practice. It is a flexible, relational and welcoming environment.’

Since graduating in 2018, Nada has been working as a secondary teacher at Calderwood Christian School and has enjoyed getting to know students and grow as a teacher. She has a passion for student wellbeing and has undertaken further counselling training to care more effectively for students. ‘I have a heart for pastoral care and in the future would like to support students and their families as they traverse the sometimes difficult terrain that adolescence brings,’ she explains. 

When reflecting on the College turning forty, Nada reflects, ‘This is an incredible milestone! Excelsia should be proud of the way it has supported not just emerging educators but also students in all of their faculty areas.’


If you’re interested in studying education and learning from a Christian world view, why not explore Excelsia College’s Master of Teaching (Secondary)?

Lara Pilcher first began her association with Excelsia College in 1997 when she commenced her Bachelor of Creative Arts in Dance. For Lara, studying at an institution that taught creative arts from a faith-based perspective excited her. From the get-go, she became involved in the community and was able to refine her creative talents, learning from creatives from all over the world. Lara also enjoyed being a student representative of the entire college in her final year of studies.

When reflecting on her studies, Lara explains, ‘The dance degree was vigorous and very full. I further pursued acting and singing and broadened my education after the strong foundation I gained from Excelsia.’ After graduating from Excelsia in 1999, Lara completed a Musical Theatre Certificate II at Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) and then a master’s in musical theatre at Arts Educational School in London. Now, she’s using her knowledge as a performer and arts advocate and she networks with Christian artists all around the world. She also produces high quality events in Sydney and London and has taught performance masterclasses in Paris, Beijing, and New York. Prior to relocating to London to further pursue performing, Lara ran her own dance studio in Perth. She has also married a man who shares her same passion for the arts as a specialist physiotherapist for artists and the couple have two children.

The creative and performing arts industry is fluid and ever changing, reflective of the number of roles and locations Lara has worked in throughout her twenty-year career. ‘I moved to Melbourne for five years to continue performing and be closer to family. I worked in Australian television, musical theatre and theatre. Then I worked as an associate professor of acting at Bethel Conservatory of The Arts in Redding, California.’ Now, Lara and her family are based in Atlanta, Georgia, working as part of films shooting for Netflix, Marvel and beyond in the region. This year, Lara also started her own self-titled business, providing coaching and courses for performers.

Undertaking study at a tertiary institution is a stepping stone on one’s journey to pursuing their dream career and for Lara, it’s an experience that she would do all over again! ‘Excelsia College made a huge difference to me. I’m grateful for my three happy years and I smile every time I remember it. I had the time of my life and still have many friends from College; we made lifetime bonds and have so many happy memories. My vision was broadened and passion ignited for the entire world and all the artists and creativity it carries. I believe deeply in faith-based artists and their impact on the professional world of arts,’ says Lara reflectively.

We are proud of Lara and for her drive and ambition to succeed in the competitive creative and performing arts space. She embodies Excelsia’s ethos of being a lifelong learner engaged with and positively impacting the world. ‘I love leading artists and still lead artists today,’ says Lara. It seems Lara has certainly found her calling in life and it will be exciting to see the places she will go!

Excelsia College offers creative and performing arts courses and many of our alumni have gone on to pursue successful careers across areas such as music, drama, performance studies and screen production.

Lara Pilcher | Excelsia College Alumni

With a daughter who was valedictorian at Excelsia College for the Bachelor of Dramatic Art, Tracey Deal had big shoes to fill when she enrolled in a Master of Educational Leadership at Excelsia College in 2017. Tracey had been working as an educator for many years and felt it was time to do further study to better equip herself for higher leadership positions within a school environment.


The course’s emphasis on a Christian biblical worldview and the flexibility of being able to start her studies at any point also appealed to Tracey. ‘I have known a lot about Excelsia College from a long time ago when it was Wesley Institute and being creative arts focused it was relevant to my life as a music teacher.’ Tracey is also passionate about developing students to reach their potential and she closely aligned with Excelsia College’s mission and ethos of making lifelong learners. ‘It is a friendly, dedicated and Christ-centred environment,’ says Tracey.


Tracey was one of only three students when she commenced her studies and was able to complete her whole course online even before online delivery became mandatory at the onset of the COVID-19 lockdowns. ‘As I did my whole course online, I didn’t really have a lot of in-person interactions, but I found the lecturers for the course extremely helpful. I also enjoyed getting to know new people from all over the country and world online.’


Tracey has been able to apply what she’s studied to her leadership-based role as Principal of Penrith Christian School, a role she commenced in 2019, a year after graduating. ‘I believe God taught me to consider relevant and contemporary issues through a biblical world view, rather than just in a school setting. Studying at Excelsia College gave more meaning to the subjects I did as I was at a Christian school. I believe studying at Excelsia certainly helped me attain my goal of becoming school principal.’


Whilst advancement within one’s career can be a daunting task, Tracey felt led by God and took comfort in her favourite Bible verse, Proverbs 3:5–6, which says, ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.’ Tracey has certainly learned to trust in Him as she reflects, ‘The words of the verses from Proverbs have been an encouraging and a gentle reminder daily that my calling to educate is not fulfilling unless it is through relying on God at the same time.’


Excelsia is proud of its graduates, including Tracey, who have gone on to be leaders within their communities. If you’re in the educational sector or are interested in upskilling, why not explore how the Master of Educational Leadership can help you achieve your career goals?

A desire to develop her communication skills, a better understanding of people’s mental health and her own mindset were the key motivators that led Alison Crooks to enrol in the Graduate Certificate in Counselling at Excelsia College.

Deciding to re commence her studies in 2020 as a mature age student was a daunting prospect for the mother of two. Alison was working as a Foundational Skills Lecturer within the Army Indigenous Development Program (AIDP) in Darwin, teaching literacy and numeracy skills to army trainee cohorts.

Despite the new season of change, Alison was able to smoothly transition back into the study environment. ‘Excelsia offered so much support – there was workshops on how to do the assignments and lots of help if I needed it. I also had counselling from the free counsellors that Excelsia offered, as it helped me learn the skill of counselling.’

Whilst Alison completed her course 100 per cent online, she appreciated being able to learn in real time, foster friendship with her peers and feel supported by her lecturers. ‘The students at Excelsia were some of the friendliest people I have met. I still have friends that I made during this course. There were a lot of people in the course who were in a similar situation to mine – they wanted to improve their position in their job or transition into a new line of work. I also found the teachers at Excelsia so amazing. They had practical knowledge of what it was like to work as a counsellor.’

In her studies, Alison not only learned how to counsel others, but also how to understand her own mind and way of thinking. ‘In the course we constantly practiced our communication skills, not just what we say but how we say it. I’ve never really had that before. We are often too focused on learning information, but the Excelsia course really helped me apply the knowledge as well.’

After completing her studies in 2021, Alison moved into a more senior position within AIDP, working as a Program Coordinator and helping Indigenous recruits to meet the Army entry requirements. Alison has been able to see a direct correlation between the skills she learned in her study and in her interactions with others. ‘The skills I learned at Excelsia have been important in helping people deal with the stress that they experience coming into the course and any mental health or trauma issues they are dealing with. The skills I learned during this course will stay with me forever.’ As for describing Excelsia, she was attracted to the inclusive learning environment and describes the College as ‘loving supported education.’

Alison also appreciated the intersection of faith within her studies. ‘I think Excelsia has a really important place in teaching counselling that acknowledges and respects the role that religion has in helping people deal with their mental health issues.’

If you’re interested in working as a counsellor and learning practical skills to help you relate to others in your workplace, why not explore Excelsia’s counselling courses? You will learn not only the theoretical knowledge but also the practical skills within a Christian worldview.