Meet Raelene Ward, Senior Lecturer in the School of Nursing at the University of Southern Queensland (UniSQ). Growing up with her grandmother by her side, Rae was taught determination and perseverance. These qualities carried her through an incredible nursing career and, most recently, have seen her complete her PhD. Today, Rae and her colleagues at the School of Nursing and Midwifery share their stories to educate students on the true history of this land, and to produce culturally safe nurses.
The warmth of the spring sun beats down on Raelene Ward as she sits in the yarning circle of UniSQ’s Gumbi Gumbi gardens. Yarning circles are how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples traditionally form social structures, and delegate duties to contribute economically and culturally to their community. Wind meanders through the trees and rustles the leaves; ancestors passing through. Rae smiles.
‘I’m quite emotional… Being in this place and sharing stories in the yarning circle where our ancestors conducted business - it feels right. My grandmother is probably here, and her brother walks around this place. It feels right to share my story here, now.’
‘My story begins in outback far Western Queensland. I grew up in very small Aboriginal communities in Windorah, Jundah, Yaraka and Cunnamulla. We never had anything fancy like our children have today. Every little gift was important to us, and so I think that appreciation is embedded in who I am today.’
In particular, Rae says her grandmother was a great influence throughout her childhood. ‘She was a woman of sheer determination and perseverance. She taught us the importance of education, advocacy, social justice and maintaining our voice as a culture. I see my grandmother in who I am today.’
The 1,000km road to nursing
Ever since she was a little girl, Rae knew she would become a nurse. Inspired by her grandmother’s guidance, she found her path.
‘I didn’t know how, but I knew I would get there. I moved to Goondiwindi after completing grade 12, and undertook my hospital training as an Enrolled Nurse (EN). From there, I decided to study to become a Registered Nurse (RN) and enrolled at UniSQ. I just kept on going, continuing into my Masters, and most recently into my PhD.’
Teaching through storytelling
Returning to UniSQ as an academic in 2007 after her Masters, Rae worked across a number of ground-breaking research projects, including coordinating a national suicide prevention program among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Today, as Senior Lecturer in the School of Nursing, Rae coordinates and teaches a number of courses in the undergraduate nursing program. She supervises a handful of students undertaking postgraduate specialised research projects.
Rae and her colleagues at the School of Nursing and Midwifery strive to produce culturally safe nurses who provide effective and efficient care to patients regardless of their culture, race or religion.
‘At UniSQ, we have the highest number of Aboriginal academics within one faculty - the School of Nursing and Midwifery. We also have a track record of producing the highest number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nurses. These achievements add to our strength; to who we are and to our ambition. We teach nurses to communicate appropriately depending on the group they’re working with. We show them how to be an advocate for patients, and to keep patients informed about every aspect of their care as they come through the hospital setting.’
It’s clearly a mammoth task - and Rae says this is where storytelling comes in.
‘We often teach through storytelling; it’s part of our culture. When we embed this in our teaching, it has a flow-on effect and practical applications for our students. Students pick up on how to communicate with Aboriginal peoples and work with liaison officers to provide a culturally safe working environment.’
Rae reflects on the importance of non-Indigenous people of engaging with Australia’s history.
‘There’s an opportunity for non-Indigenous people to learn about who we are as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It’s not only our history; it’s your history too. We need to be able to tell our story and share our experiences because it contributes to learning and breaks down barriers - particularly in a nursing and caring environment.’
Achievement and humility
Rae was the first from her family and her community to become a nurse - but she doesn’t sing her own praise. When asked how she feels about her achievements, Rae remembers her roots.
‘The way I feel today relates to both my personal journey and the experience of many Aboriginal families.’
She pauses as a wave of emotion rushes through her.
‘We’ve had lots of atrocities, death and grief - but we persevere. Nursing has always been my journey. I feel proud, but I’m also very humble: this is who we are as Aboriginal peoples. We are humble in our achievements, identity, and in supporting each other.’
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