From ‘tip rat’ to a PhD – Lisa’s journey is an example, not an exception

Lisa Conway is a proud Yorta Yorta woman. She’s lived through crisis. She has gone from living in her car to studying at the Australian National University as a Sir Roland Wilson Pat Turner PhD scholar.

Lisa’s research aims to ensure cultural responsiveness underpins policy and decision-making in the public service.

She explains cultural responsiveness is a respectful, helpful and relatively simple approach that builds on cultural awareness. It’s a way to build a better understanding of the perspectives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander customers and staff.

“Cultural responsiveness is less about knowing an Indigenous culture inside out and more about knowing yourself inside out,” Lisa said.

“It’s more a focus on your own culture. And these skills are transferable – not just for working with Indigenous people, but other diverse groups as well.”

Lisa has worked for Services Australia for 15 years. Staff at her local Centrelink office helped her secure a scholarship to begin her studies in social work. Lisa became a Centrelink service officer before successfully finishing her studies and gaining a social work job. This meant she could stop living in her car and move into secure housing.

Taking these and every other opportunity she could find, Lisa has worked to build a safe and secure life for her and her children. Along the way, she became the first in her family to finish Year 12. Then she was the first to get a degree and own her own home.

Lisa’s parents were in state care from very young ages. Her father was living on the streets of Melbourne by age 13. They moved her family interstate to keep their family together. They ended up in a small rural community in western Victoria.

“My primary school was very small,” Lisa said, “most of the children were from the rich local families who owned the surrounding farms. And then there was me and all my cousins. We were known as the ‘tip rats’.

“On my first day at school I got a ruler across my fingertips. This was to remind me that I was a ‘tip rat’. And that I was expected to behave or I would get more of the same…I was five.”

Lisa credits a Centrelink officer for sowing the seed to change her path at critical time in her life.

“Having a baby changed my life. All of a sudden it’s just like wow – I’ve got this other person and that person is so much more important than me,” Lisa said.

“So I went back to Centrelink and asked what could I do. I met with a careers counsellor and we figured out I’d be suitable for social work.

“I thought I’m going to do this – I’m going to be a social worker. I didn’t think I was going to be a Centrelink social worker…but it’s been a really great fit,” Lisa said.

Lisa draws on her lived experience as a reminder that people living in crisis are primarily caught up in survival. They are often unable to think about the future.

“I always try to make Centrelink officers aware when they’re trying to help someone just because you feel like you didn’t get somewhere that day – it doesn’t mean that you didn’t,” she says.

“For me, the seed was definitely sown at the first meeting. Even if it took a little while to grow into a fully-fledged idea”

Lisa’s social work degree was just the beginning of her academic journey. Her research and PhD study through the Sir Roland Wilson Foundation at the Australian National University has given Lisa the chance to meet with prominent Aboriginal Australians from media commentators to academics and politicians.

While she still has a few years of study to go, Lisa is starting to embrace what completing her PhD will be mean in both the short and longer term.

“I can’t wait until I can put ‘Dr’ on my flight profile so they welcome me to the plane with ‘Dr Conway’ – it’ll be the first thing I change,” Lisa laughed.

“I get to work really closely with some other Aboriginal people with amazing knowledge. Part of what we do is to work with universities to get that sort of knowledge recognised and valued.

“The research I’m doing will hopefully guide initiatives and employment strategies aimed to of get more Indigenous people into leadership roles in the public service.

“With all the things I’ve achieved – and it seems a little surreal at times – I really hope people can get some inspiration from my journey. My hope is to be seen as an example of what Aboriginal women can accomplish – not an exception.”