Most of the 800 graduands who marked the end of their uni years last month had picked their outfits well ahead of celebrations. Ulumburra Theatre was a sea of hairspray and mile-high heels. In comparison, Jo Parker’s family joked she looked like she was ducking out to the supermarket. But that’s because, unlike everyone else, she only had an hour’s notice she was to graduate that day.
Although Jo’s graduation from a Bachelor of Public Health coincided with her daughter Lauren’s graduation from nursing, they didn’t plan to graduate together.
“I thought as a mum I had higher priorities than to spend the money to graduate on stage,” Jo says. “But on the day I was a bit sad, I’d put so much work in over the years, but that’s the way life goes.”
An hour before the ceremony our Pro Vice-Chancellor Regional office heard Jo’s story, and gave her a call to say La Trobe wanted her to graduate with Lauren, at the university’s discretion. Jo made it to the theatre, in jeans and jumper, just in time to be gowned up.
“It was pretty awesome,” she says. “At the time it was so surreal, but afterwards, when everything calmed down, I thought, that was amazing. I also thought, damn, I could have worn that really lovely dress I’ve got…”
Jo enrolled in her degree after spending her working life in a variety of fields, none of them health related. She’s been a MYOB consultant, a trainer and assessor, a database designer, and owner of an Apple sales and service business. She says her family could “see the writing on the wall” for their IT business. In America Apple was consolidating its stores, and there was very limited margin in its products. So back to the books it was.
Jo says she initially wanted to study dietetics and bio sciences, as she was interested in the idea of treating disease with high doses of minerals and had seen the impact this could have in relation to anxiety and mental health.
She started with a common year to get back into study, where she earned herself an ATAR of 84. Her options for further study were wide open, but by that time Jo had found a real passion for public health.
“I didn’t even know what public health was to begin with, but when I started studying it I got really excited and thought, this is for me,” she says. “It’s not just about food, it’s about all the determinates that affect a person’s health throughout their lifetime. I found studying the human body was fascinating and it wasn’t a chore to learn it.”
Jo’s experiences at La Trobe also helped when Lauren came to enrol on the back of a Diploma of Nursing at Bendigo Tafe.
The eldest of Jo’s three daughters, Lauren had left school after Year 10 to complete Certificate Three in Community Services and Aged Care, and began working at just 16. “She was so capable at 16,” Jo said, adding Lauren’s pathway to university shows her tenacity and will to become a nurse.
Lauren also picked up part time work in disability, which led to her completing another certificate, and then the diploma. After graduating from her degree this year Lauren now works at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne.
Jo is still currently on the job search, but in the meantime has been steadily applying her degree. She volunteers with Bendigo Community Health on a number of small research projects and has just completed a project with Australian Health Promotion Association on engaging Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander health promotion workers.
“It was really revealing as to why people still struggle for self-determination, regardless of the support and funding that’s available to them,” Jo says. “It’s quite a complex issue.”
Another project looked at community perceptions of what makes good care. “That work has helped inform Bendigo Community Health’s new strategy on providing good client-centred services. It was good to get out into the community because projects like that bring you back to the human aspect of the job, rather than the academic.”
While at uni Jo worked with other students to initiate the Healthy Together Kids Club, promoting good eating habits via the Bendigo Farmers Market. She also worked to develop a sexual health program for Radius clients and an anxiety and depression program for primary school children.
Jo says the work of Public Health professionals can influence policy and practice, so while she won’t be at the coalface of health care, like daughter Lauren, her work will make a difference. “I can’t believe I’ll get paid to do this sort of work, I think it’s the best work ever,” she says.
“To think my work might have played a part in helping someone, and making a difference in someone’s life and family, that’s wonderful. I’ve just got to get a job in the field now.”