Prof Mandy Kenny visits the ghosts of emails past for 10-year milestone

Professor Amanda Kenny is a self-confessed email hoarder – which comes in handy when asked to think back to ten years ago.

This week Mandy scrolled way, way back to find a host of emails from just before the Federal Government announced $59.6 million would be coming Bendigo’s way to build the La Trobe Rural Health School.

La Trobe had applied for funding for two major facilities in that bid; the LRHS, and the La Trobe Institute of Molecular Science in Bundoora.

“The university was really clear when it said it wouldn’t prioritise either, both were really important and when the government asked it to prioritise, it said no,” Mandy says.

“The Vice Chancellor emailed me to say, irrespective of which bid got up, he was going to make the announcement in Bendigo. There was slight anxiety about that and it made me laugh when I saw it again. It was significant recognition of the importance of the regional campuses to the university.”

The City of Greater Bendigo Council, Bendigo Health and Monash University had supported the bid. There was a lot riding on these plans to transform the regional campuses into Australia’s biggest rural health school.

“We planned for a massive party to commiserate or celebrate,” Mandy says. “On the evening of the 12th of May 2009, the then Vice Chancellor, Paul Johnson, phoned from the budget lockdown in Canberra to say the La Trobe Rural Health School had been funded, together with the La Trobe Institute of Molecular Science. Everyone was in shock.

“The next day there was a massive media presence in Bendigo for the official announcement. Quite a bit of champagne was consumed! It was an absolute party, and a sense that this amazing opportunity would make such a different in regional and rural Australia. It was just the most amazing thing.”

Mandy was the first head of the La Trobe Rural Health School. She oversaw the total $75.9 million building project, which included the Arnold Street Clinical Teaching building, the La Trobe Rural Health School building, the expanded dentistry department, Victoria’s first regional wet anatomy lab and 268 student accommodation beds.

Mandy says at the time it was the largest change experience of any Australian university. The aim was to increase rural university participation rates by 70 per cent, produce more than 300 graduates annually to address critical healthcare workforce shortages, create an extra 60 academic and admin positions, increase applied health research, and most importantly, improve the health of rural and regional Australians.

Today those aspirations are seen as modest as they’ve been far surpassed, with more than 3000 current health students.

 “It’s exciting to look back and feel incredibly proud of the amazing team effort,” she says. “So many people said we’d never do it. That it was a waste of time, we’d never get the students. People were saying there weren’t enough smart rural kids.

“To look back and think how many students have graduated, and it’s thousands in ten years, is amazing. The bid enabled us to make such a difference today, right across the whole region, and that’s the most exciting bit.”

The school introduced new allied health courses to Bendigo, including physiotherapy, speech pathology, paramedicine, podiatry, occupational therapy and Australia’s first rural dentistry course.

It also dramatically altered the campus demographic. “Ten years ago, the regional campuses were quite Anglo Saxon, and while we still draw a huge amount of local community, the diversity in our students now is just fantastic,” Mandy says, citing more mature age, more international and more female students studying health courses. And that diversity has included the staff.

Mandy is one of four LRHS heads – the second was Professor Jane Farmer, the third Professor Teresa Iacono and the fourth Professor Pamela Snow. “When we’re striving for gender equality across the university it’s a fantastic example of that,” Mandy says.

This week the university will gather to acknowledge all that’s been achieved in the past decade, but as always, it will look to the future. The 2019 Rural Health Conference will outline the current initiatives and research projects poised to impact lives across the state.

“It makes you stop and reflect on the major contribution the university made to the community, and what can be achieved when people get together with a crazy idea and a commitment to make a major difference to vulnerable rural people,” Mandy says. “We’ve achieved that and we continue to achieve that.”

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