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A real chance to succeed

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Professor Lisa Jackson Pulver knows from personal experience how heavily the disadvantage of generations weighs on students from First Nations communities. She also knows the pride that comes with giving those students the support they need to thrive.

It is a remarkable story: the tale of a woman who spent her teenage years sleeping in cars, on rooftops and in boarding houses, on the run from a violent home; who steadied her own life first by training to become a nurse, and then by forging an academic career; who was the first Indigenous person to earn a PhD in Medicine at the University of Sydney; and who is now recognised with an Order of Australia for services to medical education.

More remarkable still is the fact that Professor Lisa Jackson Pulver’s story does not end with her own triumph. Instead, she has used her position and her influence to set close to 100 First Nations students on the path to success, as co-founder of the UNSW Shalom-Gamarada Scholarship program.

Lisa launched herself into a medical degree in the 1990s, after almost a decade working as a nurse. The experience, she says, was terrible. Needless to say, she lacked the kind of family background that makes university education, its demands and its processes, feel familiar and achievable. She struggled to apply herself to full-time study while working part-time to pay for rent and food. Her grades were understandably underwhelming, and it took several years for her to find where her interests and her strengths really lay. 

But she persevered. Deferring her medical studies, she took on a Masters in Public Health and later earned that historic PhD, deepening her understanding of the needs and challenges of health and wellbeing in First Nations communities and, in particular, the power of community-led solutions. Despite the academic accolades, it wasn’t until she started working as a lecturer in Aboriginal Health at UNSW that she began to feel she’d finally found her place.

“The UNSW School of Public Health and Community Medicine gave me a home,” she says now. “It gave me the opportunity to achieve the dream to become an academic – and it gave me the foundation of my career.”

At UNSW, Lisa felt comfortable and purposeful. She co-founded the Muru Marri Indigenous Health Unit and served as its Director. Later she was the inaugural UNSW Chair of Indigenous Health. She took every opportunity to champion the gains being made in First Nations health, and spoke widely about how the success of interventions designed by and for Aboriginal communities had implications for the management of public health more broadly.

“Our experience at Muru Marri shows that all public health students benefit from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ input, in class and in practice,” she once wrote. “By teaching and mentoring even a small number of Aboriginal health workers to foster skills that can be translated into meaningful programs in their communities, we can create health care models that are applicable to everyone.”

Back in 2003, when Lisa first started at UNSW, there was just one First Nations student in the School of Medicine.

“She was having a terrible time, the same as me: no money, no support from family,” she recalls. “It’s heart-breaking when you’ve got someone like that, who was just really suffering, like I was.”

Lisa shared her own and the student’s story at a Sorry Day event in 2004, using it to explain to her audience how generations of entrenched disadvantage manifest in the lives of young First Nations people now. That night, Lisa was approached by Ilona Lee, then President of the Board of Shalom College, a residential college on UNSW’s Kensington campus. Ilona wanted to know how the College could help.

“And I said, ‘Well, you can give us a place for an Aboriginal student at the College!’,” laughs Lisa. “And she took that away with good grace.”

In fact, Ilona shared the story with the College Board, to almost immediate effect. On the spot, one board member pulled out his cheque book and made a personal commitment to fund the first year of what would become the Shalom-Gamarada Scholarship program, on the condition that efforts continue to expand it.

“It began from that kind of good will,” says Lisa. “None of these people are terribly rich. These are ordinary people, who have a little bit of capacity to be able to give back to [something] that makes them feel good and strong and part of the solution.”

These days, Lisa is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Indigenous Strategy and Services at the University of Sydney, a role that provides her with a platform to continue making change in how First Nations students access and experience tertiary education. She is also a Group Captain in the Royal Australian Airforce, a pursuit that led her to complete a Masters in Defence Strategic Studies at Deakin University where she had first-hand experience of that university’s Indigenous Access Scheme and Student Success Program. Grateful for the depth and breadth of her experiences as both a student and an academic, Lisa has also made work place giving and other philanthropic contributions to UNSW, Sydney and Deakin.

Eighteen years on, Lisa still views the co-founding of the UNSW scholarship program as one of her greatest achievements. In 2019, the program celebrated its fiftieth graduate; now that figure is creeping towards the 100-mark. More than half of all Shalom-Gamarada scholars are now working as doctors, accounting for around a quarter of all First Nations doctors across the country. Others have graduated from a range of studies including law, commerce, social work, architecture, optometry and aerospace engineering.

“The scholarship program gives Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a real chance at succeeding at a Group of Eight University, and to do it with some degree of dignity where they don't have to spend all their waking hours working to pay the rent—so they can simply have the job of being a full-time student,” says Lisa. “It’s as if those many, many years of economic and educational disadvantage are being washed away so they can grow into the great graduates that they are. Being a part of that story - that's my proudest thing.”

Recently, Lisa committed to leaving a Gift in Will to UNSW, in recognition of the University’s early support of her career in Indigenous Health, and to ensure that the Shalom-Gamarada scholarship program continues to produce success stories for many years to come.

“Go to university or go to college or go to TAFE - just do what will make your heart sing,” she says, to all young First Nations students, “because if you get a qualification, no matter what it is, it will change the trajectory of your family in one generation. In your generation, you will change the trajectory of your family.”

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