In this edited extract of a powerhouse panel at the Universities Australia 2019 Higher Education Conference, Dr Liz Allen and Karlie Noon outline their journeys from disadvantage to becoming some the next-generation of Australia’s inspiring research talent.
In their discussion with Universities Australia’s Misha Schubert they outline how a university education transforms individuals and communities.
You can listen to the full discussion here.
Liz, let’s start with you. They say demography is destiny but, in your case, demography was kind of accidental, wasn’t it?
I was always a ‘why’ kid: why are things happening like this, or why is this so. So I think that at the beginning I was very gifted in that I had this gift of wanting to know why.
Education was certainly not an assumed thing for me. That’s because I was from a very disadvantaged background. Money was tight. There were many of us and the resources were so few.
I was a little bit naïve, as well, in that I just assumed that I could aspire to be average and I think that that naivety also carried me on with, “Well, if they are having it, why can’t I?” and, more importantly, “Why can’t the people around me — we’re just people, right?”
So, things were quite tough growing up – everything was hard to afford. Everything had to be justified. And, for me, education was always justified. For me, it was the way out. It was my ticket out, and certainly if we go back to this idea of demography being destiny, the family and the circumstances you’re born into is what you’re lumped with for life.
I think I was acutely aware that I didn’t want to be in this pigeon hole.
I finished Year 10 and Year 12 at Mount Druitt TAFE and, for me, the sky was the limit. I didn’t do very well, but I worked bloody hard and I made the decision consciously every day. There were days where there was no food because I just wanted that ticket out of this so badly. I think that I was very lucky — very lucky and gifted with that annoying ‘but why?’.
My keen interest is in inequality and, more importantly, how can we redress that. Demography and my craft is one way to give back to the little Liz who saw the world of opportunity.
Karlie, you also didn’t grow up in a family with a lot of money, did you?
Tell us about your experience of growing up in regional Australia and what stars had to come into alignment to put you on the path into university education.
My family definitely did not have wealth. We had no money, and that was a huge barrier for me, even going to school. I was going to school with no lunch, and this was pretty common. It got much more extreme than that.
To be in an environment where everyone has lunch, everyone has a clean uniform because they have a washing machine at home, everyone has the right socks, everyone has the right shoes. That wasn’t me and there weren’t a lot of people like me at the high schools that I went to. That in itself is really hard.
I always loved education. I always loved learning. That was always my thing. But I just didn’t attach it to school. That wasn’t where learning happened for me. It happened on my own terms. I chose when I learned. It happened in my home.
I was really privileged to grow up very connected to culture and I had really strong Aboriginal women in my life: my mum, my grandmother, a lot of family friends, a lot of community leaders, and they would help me. I think to be encouraged in anything in a world where I was often discouraged and often either that or ignored, being encouraged in anything was incredibly empowering.
I guess the next thing was I changed schools. I could relate to the people there. We came from the same neighbourhood, we had similar family situations, and I felt a little bit more at home. It had a much bigger Indigenous population — about 40 per cent, which is huge considering we are three per cent of the population.
At that school, things like my clothes, my lunch, none of that mattered. The fact that I was there was what was important. I think that really helped me embrace education.
I think, also, I was very naïve in terms of what academia was, what research was, what uni was. No one in my family had gone to uni. I think that naivety allowed me to be like, “Oh, I can do that. Other people do this. I don’t see them, but I know that they do this. My teachers had to do it to get to where they are.”
It helped me get there. I was sheltered from these stereotypes, these preconceptions, and I was like, “Yeah, I can do this.”
Liz, how did you get from Mount Druitt TAFE, then?
I think that the main motivator for me to finish school was I went back as an adult. I was 18 and I had a child in toe, so the quintessential teen mum, hard on her luck. I have a very supporting partner who has been with me from the very beginning. We were teens, together fighting the good fight.
It was having that nine months old baby and just this realisation that I’m either going to die in a gutter or I get this stuff together, Looking into this child’s face and thinking I cannot give this child what I experienced. And so, that was the impetus.
I went and did Year 10 and Year 12, and then enrolled in an applied chem degree and was going to be a forensic scientist and studied medicine, as well. It just wasn’t for me.
I think I just wanted to show myself that I could get access to this degree, that I could get in, that I was worthy, I could be accepted into something as prestigious as applied chemistry. I remember going to the Centrelink office and showing them that I was in an approved course of study, and the woman looked at it and she looked at me, and she looked at it. She said, “Applied chemistry?” She came over to me and she gave me a giant hug. I thought, “Oh, my gosh. I’ve made it.”
Anyway, I transferred out of that degree but I still worried if I’ve let this woman down. I haven’t. I promise. And so, I found myself in a very general degree at Macquarie University, because I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I was a mature-age student and I just had no clue.
I had to choose between an elective. It was literally jurisprudence, and I thought, “I cannot even say that. I cannot imagine what it’s going to be like doing it if I cannot even say it.” Then, beside it, was demography. “Yeah, I can do that.”
I attended every single lecture. I was there, while working and caring for a child, travelling two hours one way to get to this university, but I loved it. On the bus and on the train, I would hand-write my assignments, and then get back to the local library and type it up. I didn’t have a computer in the house. And it was my ticket out of the town.
I then applied for one job — one job only. Apparently, people don’t do this It was for a demographer graduate position at the ABS, and they took me. I thought, “Centrelink lady, look at me now.” Off I travelled to the ABS and I just thought it was the most magical thing and I got sucked in — in a good way. Demography will get you like that.
I then had a child. By this time, I was onto the third baby, and I was hit by debilitating postnatal depression and I couldn’t work, so I had to resign from this job that was like the holy grail. I didn’t know what to do with myself. What do you do when you’ve got postnatal depression to the point where you cannot move? You enrol in a degree, and this is literally what I did. I thought, “There is nothing stopping me. Education got me out in the first place, education will get me out again,” and it did.
It was all gun’s blazing. I was breastfeeding this child and attending lectures and doing the tutorials, and I had a laptop in the house. There was nothing stopping me, and it was freedom. Again, I was getting HDs in everything and I thought, “I’m actually worth something”. I could, potentially, have a greater world out there awaiting me. Education has always been a ticket out of the situation, and it served me well.
It was at that point at ANU someone actually pulled me aside and said, “Have you thought about a PhD?”
It was transformative. I walked into that PhD with such respect and sense of empowerment that I could just own my life, and now I wear a ‘Dr’ in front of my name, and I wear it with great pride.
Karlie, how did you find your pathway through, into university, your double degree, and were there people along the way who planted a seed of ambition for the next step?
Yes, definitely. When I graduated and the people around me and myself realised, oh, I’m one of the first to do this, I’m the first female, I’m the first from this uni, I’m the first from this state, I’m the first from this side of the country.
It was like, “Oh, okay, that’s kind of big.” That, in itself, really planted that seed — the fact that I wasn’t looking necessarily for a ticket out of, but a lot of my journey was looking for, I guess, a ticket to do something good, to do something meaningful and something powerful that I could take back home, and that’s relevant and brings people up, brings people with me.
A lot of my life I’ve been looking after my mum. She’s had quite severe disabilities and a goal was always to help with that. How can I help my mum’s situation? How can I help my family situation? How can I help my community situation?
When I graduated, it became clear. It was like, “This is how I’ll do it. People are telling me that this is inspiring. People are telling me that this important work that I’m doing.” That, in itself, made me go, “Okay, I need to push this further. What else can I do?”
There were definitely people that helped me along the way. I gained some incredible mentors, and one of them, who works at the University of Canberra, actually, Peter Radoll, who is an incredible mentor, incredible friend and has helped me through a lot of things. We both come from Tamworth. We’re both Gamilaroy. It was this connection and he definitely was encouraging me. A lot of people were encouraging me to do Indigenous Australians research.
They definitely saw that in my future. I still see it in my future, but the people that were closest to me was saying, “Go for gold. Go literally for the stars. Go as high as you can go. Go get a PhD in Astrophysics.” And, sure, at first a little bit intimidating but, again, I was like, “Why not? I got through my undergrad.” It was hard, of course.
I don’t think anything you do at uni is necessarily easy, but that’s the point, isn’t it? The point is to learn and to grow, and that’s definitely a really big thing for me in the field that I’m in, in astronomy and physics. It’s that you see yourself grow every day, and you see yourself learning every day.
I wondered if both of you want to reflect on the personal opportunities that university education has opened up for you. Give us a quick meditation on why universities are important.
The amount of opportunity I’ve been given — and not just me: my family, my community.
My sister had her first child when she was 17. She left school when she was in Year 9. She is now a nurse. She is getting her degree. She saw that I could do it, it’s achievable.
I have a cousin. I’m the only person she knows that’s gone to uni. She’s now looking to go to uni. She is in Year 11, and it’s been hard. She left Year 11. She’s gone back. She is so determined to get to uni, to bring not only herself but her family out of this cycle, so I think it’s incredibly important. I cannot speak to that enough.
I always go back home. I go back home as many times as I can a year, to talk to my community, to talk to the people in schools there, to talk to the young people and just encourage them, give them hope. When you come from a regional town, it’s hard. You see these things on the telly and you go, “Oh, yeah, that would be a really cool life but that’s not for me. I cannot do that.” Essentially, when I go back, I say, “Well, I did it. You can do it. I promise you, you can do it,” and so it gives hope. I think that’s the main thing that uni has done for me and my community — it’s given us hope.
I strongly believe that higher education is a public good and with that in mind, I bear a great responsibility that everybody should have access. It should be an accessible place for people to dream to be.
It might not be a degree. It might be seminars or outreach work where we go out and talk about our craft and we share with kids in schools, or parents in town halls, or whatever, that we can communicate our craft with people and make it accessible to all, not just degrees but information about ourselves and the world around us.
The other thing I think is most powerful is that we need to be able to see ourselves in education. Sometimes, the naivety gets us only so far and then we need to be able to see role models that are successful. When I say successful, I’m not talking people that are on TV and doing great things — just normal, average people that are in a job that requires a degree. That idea that you can see yourself is so powerful.
I look at students now and I want them to know one thing: is that a poor kid is now teaching them and that, if they’re ever experiencing hardships, that there is a way out. If I can be that one person that shows that young person that they have a life beyond where they are, I feel like I’ve done the world of good.