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Written By

Hannah Gray


College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

9 February 2020

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Discovering a new horizon

Growing up in a low-socioeconomic environment, JCU alumni Leah Nicholls never saw herself studying at university or pursuing a career. But moving to Townsville set her on a path to discover that opportunities she had never dreamed of weren’t so far away after all.

Leah grew up in Tasmania with low expectations for her future. “Uni was definitely not something that was on the horizon for me,” Leah says. “Where I grew up in Tassie, no one really went to uni. So, it was definitely a journey to get to the point of pursuing university.

“When I moved to Townsville, where there was a university right in town, I spent a couple of years thinking, ‘I could give it a go’. I’d been working in the same industry for eight years and I found it really difficult to find where to go next.”

That small thought of giving it a go led to Leah searching for what she really wanted to do. With her roots in a low-socioeconomic setting, Leah knew that she wanted to help people in similar circumstances to find their footing, to overcome obstacles and to achieve more than they thought possible.

“I decided to dive in and apply for Social Work,” Leah says. “Because I hadn’t had any previous experience, I did the Diploma of Higher Education, which was fantastic. It really taught me how to research, how to reference, how to write an essay. It walked me through the steps of what uni life is really like.

“Study can often be make or break for people and the diploma is a good taster to find out what it takes to make it through. It’s also really beneficial because you can choose electives that will help you in your specific degree. Between the skills and credits from electives as well as the core subjects, it’s really worth it. I don’t think I would have survived uni without doing the diploma.”

Finding the right fit

As Leah moved through her Social Work degree, she discovered that her chosen field was as varied and diverse as the people who she wanted to help. Finding the path that she wanted to pursue was a journey of its own.

“What I wanted to do changed yearly,” she says. “I’d do a subject one semester and think I was so interested in working in communities. Then I’d do another subject and think I really wanted to work with refugees and immigrants. Then I’d do a study about Indigenous people and I wanted to work with Indigenous people. Then it was young people. I just wanted to do everything!”

The foundation of social work is assisting people who need it most, and Leah has found that to be the core of her focus. As she took on placements and internships with different organisations through her third and fourth years, she decided that she would strive to make a difference in whichever setting she entered.

“A subject that really struck me was one I did as an elective in my diploma, which was Human Rights and Social Justice. It gave me a clear picture of what social work is really about. We even talked about climate change and its impacts on people and how it would be the responsibility of a social worker to work with people who may have had to leave their home due to flooding or fire. It was an eye-opener to how broad social work is.”

Ready to take on new experiences

Having finished her Bachelor of Social Work, Leah is now working as an NDIS supporter in the disability sector.

“It’s something I never thought I would do,” she says. “I never felt really confident in being able to help people and the disability sector is an area that I hadn’t experienced before. But I love it! It has such variety. No case is the same and there’s always a new challenge.”

In her cases, Leah helps clients looking for homes or service providers by connecting them with mainstream support and networks. These networks can include the Office of the Public Guardians and child safety officers, who often assist Leah in her cases as she assists them with theirs. For Leah, a priority in her job is making sure her client feels secure in the help they receive.

“We gather information and bring it to a participant and let them know they have control over this case,” Leah says. “It’s their choice. Whether that choice involves which service provider to choose or if they want to involve certain parties, such as public guardians, it’s their choice to make.

“It can be difficult because you can have an opinion about what they should choose or what you think will be best for them, but at the end of the day you have to let them make their own decision, even if you don’t think it’s something suitable to them.”

With her undergraduate studies finished and now being in a position where she’s achieving her goal of making a difference to people who need it, Leah is proud to be at this point in her journey.

“It wasn’t until I started uni that I realised how social structures and systems affect our lives,” she says. “I realised that for many people, life can get caught in a cycle outside of their control. Empowering people to break that cycle is really important for helping them to look outside of their setting, such as a low socio-economic area, and start seeking a lifestyle that has strong support networks and greater opportunities.”

From having low expectations for her own future to assisting and empowering others to seek better for theirs, Leah’s motivation, education and experience has led her on a path with opportunities that she’s more than ready to embrace.

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