University access program addresses Indigenous health shortfall

26 May 2009

A University of Sydney program designed to foster the development of Indigenous allied health professionals could play a crucial role in addressing serious welfare issues within aboriginal communities.

Sally Farrington, Director of the Yooroang Garang Indigenous Student Support Unit at the Faculty of Health Sciences, says services provided by Indigenous health graduates in remote communities is increasingly vital in helping close the current 17-year gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

"It's impossible to underestimate the importance of having a skilled Indigenous health workforce to work in Indigenous health to help redress current health issues," says Farrington. "Our role is to increase the number of Indigenous allied health professionals who are working in these vital areas by making our degrees more accessible."

Farrington oversees the university's Cadigal access and support program at the faculty - an initiative that allows Indigenous students access to an applied health science degree via alternative entry criteria. Once enrolled, students also benefit from numerous support strategies, including flexibility in enrolment load and the availability of specialist academic support for the duration of their degree.

"Many of our Indigenous students face significant challenges," says Farrington. "For instance, many of our Indigenous students are first generation learners. They are the first members of their families who have attended university. As such they really miss out on having advocates in their own family. We can offer the type of support that helps them overcome that."

Farrington says the positive impact generated by Indigenous allied heath professionals working within their own communities is significant.

"Indigenous people understand firsthand the health issues that effect their communities and they are highly motivated to make a difference," she says. "Their motivations are often very personal. They live in families where those issues are present. They are well connected and know the significant people in the communities that they need to work with, and they're also highly positive role models."

Cadigal Graduate, Brianna Dennis
Cadigal Graduate, Brianna Dennis

Brianna Dennis is one such Cadigal program success story. Having graduated with a Bachelor of Applied Science in Leisure and Health earlier this year, the 21-year-old is now working as a full-time youth worker in her hometown of Walgett with MacKillop Rural Community Services.

"We work with kids from 12 to 18-years who are either at risk of homelessness or are actually homeless," says Dennis. "We get a lot of kids in unstable environments and are involved in relocating them, maybe from mum's house to auntie's house. I also get involved with a lot of early prevention strategies, programs and activities - getting the kids back into education; employment/training; community and helping them become self-sufficient while also keeping their family ties, because Kinship in Aboriginal communities is very important."

Dennis says her current role is immensely rewarding, adding that the need for more Indigenous graduates cannot be overestimated.

"I find the community relates so much better to a local than they do an outsider," she says. "The kids feel very comfortable with you, and it's possible to get much more happening because of that. It also shows them that they themselves are completely capable of doing the exact same thing as me. They can have that opportunity. It's good for them to know that living in Walgett is not all about the drugs, the alcohol and unemployment. Living in Walgett is, and can be boundless with the help of educational opportunities and belief."

For more information on the Cadigal program or other services offered by the Yooroang Garang Indigenous Student Support Unit visit