Creating opportunities in Indigenous Health

The first time Karyn Ferguson set foot inside a classroom to begin her university studies, she was accompanied by her one-week-old daughter, Marnie.

Photo of Karyn Ferguson

The first time Karyn Ferguson (MHlthSocSc 2014) set foot inside a classroom to begin her university studies, she was accompanied by her one-week-old daughter, Marnie.

Karyn and six other Aboriginal students from the Goulburn Valley had been chosen through a rigorous application process to study an innovative Masters degree in Health Social Sciences at the University of Melbourne. Instead of being judged on prior academic achievement, entry to the course recognised a student’s knowledge, culture and work experience.

“It was pretty daunting at the start,” says Karyn. “I hadn’t done any academic writing before, so this was a challenge. But the University was incredibly supportive and once my mind was exposed, it opened. I loved the knowledge and learning.”

The program was championed by the late Peter Ferguson (Karyn’s uncle), who was a Yorta Yorta leader and Lecturer in Indigenous Rural Health Studies and Strategic Development Research at the University. Peter was a keen contributor to his community, providing academic and social support to students until he passed away in December 2016.

Karyn lives on Yorta Yorta country among the Dhungala (Murray) and Kaiela (Goulburn) riverlands. Like her fellow students, she lived at home while studying thanks to high-quality video conferencing facilities that kept her in touch with teachers in Melbourne, a link that was vital in making study possible.

“I had three young children and deep connections to my community,” says Karyn. “There was no way that I would be able to study if I had to leave my community.”

Karyn and two of her colleagues graduated in 2014. They are currently completing their PhDs through the University’s Melbourne Poche Centre for Indigenous Health.

“I am using population data linkage focusing on Aboriginal women, children and babies in my community to gain an accurate profile of Aboriginal health,” she says. “Once developed, these profiles can be used to affect policy, planning, resource allocation and government negotiations. Data is power.”

Her passion for working with mothers and babies began when she worked in the Rumbalara Birthing Program. She was mentored by inspirational Indigenous Elder Kaye Briggs, who showed Karyn the value of holistic care.

"Aboriginal health practices are based on thousands of years of wisdom and knowledge. We have always recognised the human element as an important part of care," says Karyn.

“The holistic way is the most effective way to care for people. This needs to be part of all medicine in the future."

Karyn is inspired by the opportunities that education presents and by Indigenous people she has met who demonstrate that you can be a high-achieving academic and retain your culture.

She believes the research she is conducting will improve health outcomes for her community but, most of all, Karyn is excited to be a role model for her children, nieces and nephews. She is hopeful that they will follow her educational footsteps. Karyn’s 12-year-old son, Will, is interested in sports and medicine and her 10-year-old daughter, Ellie, is keen to be a doctor.

“My kids ask me all the time how my PhD is going and what kind of doctor I will be,” says Karyn.

“I am the first one in my family to get a PhD, so they are very proud of me.”