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Nursing grad Mel Robinson on the key to success for Aboriginal uni students

02/09/21. By Luisa Mitchell. 5 min read.

Image: Melanie Robinson. Photo supplied by Melanie Robinson

As an Aboriginal woman with connections to Ngarinyin and Gidja Country in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, Melanie Robinson (BS Nursing, 1993) has described having to overcome racist attitudes throughout her career and journey to becoming the respected and knowledgeable health practitioner she is today. But for her, it has all been worth it to do what she loves most — improving the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in her role as Acting Director of Aboriginal Health at the Child and Adolescent Health Service (CAHS) in WA.

We chatted to Mel about why she attributes her success to studying hard at Curtin University, pushing herself out of her comfort zone and being driven to help others.

Hi Mel. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I was born in Derby and spent the first eight years of my childhood living on a cattle station and remote community called Ngallagunda Aboriginal community, which is between Wyndham and Derby. My early education was through School of the Air via a two-way radio. In 1984 we moved to Derby, which was a bit of a culture shock when it came to going to school. We had never really worn shoes or a school uniform before.

What was it like growing up in Ngallagunda and Derby?

Our life was spent outdoors swimming in rivers, creeks and billabongs and walking on Aboriginal Country. We learnt the stories and the old ways about how Aboriginal people existed before colonisation by living off the land and maintaining culture and their connection to Country. This was done by telling stories that were passed down through generations.

Where did your interest in studying nursing come from?

I loved caring for my brother and sister and helping others, so knew nursing would be right for me. My Aunty Syb was also a paediatric nurse and she was the one who inspired me to pursue the degree. She often shared stories about her work and how she helped children at Derby Hospital.

Although some of my aunties, like Aunty Syb, had gone to university, to this very day few of my family have taken this pathway, so, I feel very privileged to have completed a Bachelor of Science (Nursing) and Postgraduate Diploma in Clinical Nursing (Oncology).

More recently I did a masters in nursing research, titled ‘Aboriginal women yarning about experiences as undergraduate nursing students in Western Australian universities.’ I wanted to explore why in recent years the number of Aboriginal nursing students undertaking tertiary studies has increased, but completion rates remain low. I found there were multiple factors that could assist the students in succeeding, such as studying in environments that are culturally safe, having a sense of belonging and community, and having strong role models at university.

Did you face any systemic barriers or challenges during your own time at university?

Just like I found in my research with other Aboriginal students, when I was at uni myself, I found I needed a sense of being a part of a community. The move to Perth, being so far away from my family, friends and the community, was challenging. Having grown up in an Aboriginal community and lived around Aboriginal people all my life, it was weird to not see another Aboriginal person. I was the only Aboriginal student in my year and I never met another Aboriginal nurse until I graduated.

For Aboriginal people, when we’re at uni we need to feel welcome in the space, and this includes the physical environment. There must be opportunities to meet with other students, including Aboriginal students, to get to know each other and yarn. Strength comes from being a part of a group.

What about after you had graduated – what was the transition like going from university to the workforce?

The main challenge during the 90s was that Australia was very racist, and this was out in the open. You would often receive derogatory comments during placements at hospitals. I accepted a placement at Derby Hospital after graduating and the hardest part was belonging to the community and feeling torn when other clinicians made rude or disrespectful comments about a patient and I knew them and their family. It was personal and I had to speak up.

There were two of us Aboriginal nurses at Derby Hospital and we loved working together. Sadly, the other Aboriginal nurse left the hospital because of the racism she experienced.

Image: Melanie Robinson and a work colleague outside the Derby Hospital in 1995. Photo supplied by Melanie Robinson.

How did your nursing studies empower you and help you to stay resilient?

Education empowered me by giving me the knowledge and skills to perform in my role as a registered nurse, which I have done for the past 30 years. It taught me to question and seek answers and gave me a keen interest in learning.

As the Director of Aboriginal Health at CAHS, I am always using my role to educate and teach my colleagues about how to better provide services for Aboriginal children and their families, particularly vulnerable families. I do this in yarning circle sessions, which usually go for about 40 minutes, and have so far provided this training to over 100 CAHS employees. I have received very positive feedback about these.

Image: ‘Mum’s guide: Social and emotional wellbeing’ online resource by the WA Department of Health.

In 2010, you were awarded the Aboriginal Health Award in the annual WA Nursing & Midwifery Excellence Awards for your contributions to the sector. Why do you think your work is so important and to what do you attribute your success?

Empathy and compassion are critical. Many Aboriginal people struggle with ‘big systems’ like hospitals and find them a scary and confusing experience, so my Aboriginal patients love having an Aboriginal nurse care for them, regardless of whether we are from a different mob, as they always feel culturally safe. They would often share information with me that they wouldn’t tell a non-Aboriginal nurse out of shame or fear of being misunderstood. They knew they didn’t have to explain themselves to me because I understood them and I could relate to them.

I remember when I worked at Marr Mooditj Training I supervised an Aboriginal enrolled nursing student. By teaching her culturally appropriate skills, she was able to help an Aboriginal patient who had been labelled as ‘non-compliant’ by other nurses and get them to follow their treatment plan. So I’m proud of the skills and knowledge I’ve passed on to the next generation about how to engage with Aboriginal patients.

Image: Two young Aboriginal girls in Arnhem Land (NT), Australia, 2009. Photo sourced from Shutterstock.

Do you think the next generation of Aboriginal women will have a better chance of having a positive influence on their communities if they take on higher education?

Aboriginal women can drive change once they are educated. Most of the leaders in the Aboriginal communities I know have had some university education, which enables them to gather evidence and build a case for change. For me, I come from a family with a few very educated women, including a lawyer, a nurse and a teacher. They are all strong leaders and have really driven change within our families and the community.

And any final advice for women who might not be feeling particularly strong or are questioning their worth as leaders?

Believe in yourself. Like most female leaders I often feel like an imposter and get anxious, but then I remember all the studies I have done and the amazing jobs I’ve had. Above all, remember why you do what you do and let that drive you.

There is also one practical tip I can share. When I need to feel powerful, I stand in a power pose for a few minutes – legs apart, hands on your hips. It always amazes me how strong and empowered it makes me feel!

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Moorditj Yorga Scholarship

Moorditj Yorga Scholarship

Support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to enter and succeed at Curtin University so they can return to their communities as qualified leaders and role models.

Connect with Nursing graduates

Connect with Nursing graduates

Want to connect with other nursing graduates and friends? Find out more about our Nursing, Midwifery & Paramedicine Alumni Chapter.

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