Nellie Pollard-Wharton – My Journey into Allied Health

My name is Nellie Pollard-Wharton, and I am a Kooma woman. I was born on the lands of the Bindal and Wulgurukaba people before moving to Meanjin as a baby, where I spent the first ten years of my life. I was raised in inner-city Meanjin by my mother and step-father, spending time with my father and family, shaping who I am today. While I have grown up off country, I feel secure in my identity and connection by maintaining my family connections and remaining aware of who I am accountable to.

What allied health profession have you chosen and why? When did you decide to choose this profession? Where did you study?

I have always had a strong desire to ‘help’ people, especially my people. My sense of justice was instilled in me from birth, shaped by those around me. I had always felt drawn to social work as a profession and a calling. So, after having my son and leaving the corporate world, I enrolled in a social work degree at UNSW in Sydney. It took me six years to complete a four-year degree. There were many ups and downs, many times I wanted to chuck it in, but instead, I just kept going back each semester, doing my best.

During my undergraduate studies, I was fortunate enough to come across IAHA. I feel like this is where I found my people and how I could work across disciplines with other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples nationally.

How would you describe the journey towards your carer?

My journey has been filled with many ups and downs, triumphs and moments where I wanted to give up. These moments took all my energy, often making me want to give up or do something “easier”.

High school for me was a mixed experience; I attended an all-girls Public school in Sydney for years 7, 8 and 9 before moving to a private school on an Indigenous scholarship for 10, 11 and 12. For me, this move absolutely shaped my learning journey.

As a teenager, I think my experience was pretty universal, from experiences with mental health, risk-taking behaviours, friendships and coming to terms with what it meant to be a young Blak girl in Australia. I have had many different role models throughout my life, ranging from my Nana, parents, aunts, cousins, and public personalities. Coincidentally, these people were also my support networks.

What has been the most challenging things about your journey into allied health?

I think the most challenging was balancing life and study commitments. As a mother and then a single mother throughout my undergraduate degree, finding the right balance between being a good mother and a good enough student was so challenging. Mother guilt can be debilitating; you are faced with moments of choosing between your child in the present and your child in the future.

However, finding my village, people, community got me through. Learning to lean on people and ask for help has been an invaluable lesson. In addition to this, I think my most challenging personal experience was a negative interaction I had with Police as an undergraduate student. This experience reinforced my beliefs and gave me firsthand insights into how we, as Aboriginal people, can be treated by law enforcement and others in positions of situational power. This experience encouraged me to commit to myself and come to terms with my mental health and the use of alcohol as a negative coping mechanism. Through this experience and many others, I have and continue to work towards implementing healthy coping strategies that allow me to put myself, my family, my community and my aspirations first. Whilst alcohol or mental health may not be a struggle for you, it was for me, and it is for many. Choosing to look after my mental health and, in turn, becoming sober has meant I am the closest to my truest self that I have ever been. If we can put our whole selves first, we can achieve what we set out to.

Why is it important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to work in your profession?

I believe it is incredibly important to work in my space as a Blak woman as we are the foundations of society.

I think it is even more important in my specific area of public health research and lecturing as there are not enough of us in these spaces. By taking up space in higher education institutions and research spaces, we can control the narrative and the discourse in our specific fields. For example, I strongly believe that research with Aboriginal peoples needs to be controlled by Aboriginal peoples and communities, not by white saviours. Similarly, I believe that Blak content and courses need to be convened by Blak people. Nothing about us, without us.

What did your support network think about you going to uni and studying your profession?

Overall, my family and community have supported me in entering higher education and are so proud of my achievements. However, there have been moments where my decision to become a social worker was met with negative comments. Upon graduating, conversations with my family and community members changed throughout my degree. I realised that the negativity stemmed from uninformed or limited understandings of what social workers actually did. Interactions between welfare, health and the justice system definitely shaped people’s perceptions of what I would be doing once I graduated; however, now, I think they understand that social workers work positively in many fields.

What do you love most about your profession?

I love the diversity within this profession. I love that you can work in any field and at any level, from case management to policy, counselling to community development, health settings, and higher education.

I love that studying social work exposed the many flaws in what is delivered in some courses, allowing me to see that I wanted to eventually teach in social work to change what is taught to future professionals hopefully.

What role has IAHA played in supporting your journey?

IAHA has been a central part of my journey in the Allied Health space. IAHA has provided physical spaces to connect with my peers and mentors nationally. I have been a member of IAHA for seven years now, and it has been a consistent guiding force that has supported me throughout my undergraduate degree and now as a graduate. I am truly thankful that IAHA exists. Words cannot express my appreciation for the work that they do at all levels.

What would you say to someone thinking about a career in your chosen profession?

Find your people. Surround yourself with people that want you to succeed. This may mean cutting ties with those you once thought were your friends.

It can be difficult, really difficult at times, but it is important to put ourselves and our health first in the long run.

Find yourself. Spend time to get to know yourself, your strengths, your areas of improvement, your triggers. Get to know all of you.

Ask for help, guidance and support. You are not alone.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I think the last thing I would like to add is that we are powerhouses as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We are incredible and smart. Allied Health systems need us to be able to combat a multitude of issues. Our innovations, interventions and solutions are effective not only for our people but for all Australians. We know how to thrive; we have been doing so for over 60,000 years, so do not let anyone try and stop you from following your passion.