Graduation address given by Professor Lindy McAllister

Professor Lindy McAllister gave the following occasional address at the Faculty of Health Sciences graduation ceremony held at 11.30am on 30 March 2012 in the Great Hall. Professor McAllister is Associate Dean - Work Integrated Learning, Faculty of Health Sciences.

The photo of Professor McAllister is copyright, Memento Photography.

Professor Lindy McAllister

Graduation address

Deputy Chancellor, Academic Colleagues, ladies and gentleman, parents, family and friends, and most importantly, new graduates

I am delighted to be here this morning to witness this tradition of graduation, which among many things, is a public statement of the university's confidence that you are ready to go forth and provide healthcare for our communities. You, the graduates, should be feeling confident too, in your knowledge and skills to provide world-leading care for your clients. I've worked in many universities around the world, and I remain convinced of the view that in Australia our health professions education leads the world- it is extremely rigorous and our standards are high. I still remember a conversation many years ago with a manager in the UK NHS who told me that when they advertised a position, they always rubbed their hands together with glee when they saw applications from Australian graduates. Health professionals educated in Australia are treasured around the world for their intelligence, high levels of clinical skills, creativity, problem solving, can-do attitudes, capacity to work in a team and to work hard.

A range of people contribute to this prized status you have achieved:

  1. you - the graduates; it takes commitment and hard work to complete a health degree
  2. your lecturers and tutors -many of whom are here on this stage with me today; they have worked tirelessly to educate you to achieve the standards required for competent health care practice BUT also to go beyond that, to lead the inevitable changes in healthcare delivery; they have made sure that you don't graduate until you are safe to practice-a sometimes thankless task. Please remember to thank them today and in the future for their commitment to you and your clients' care
  3. your family; for many of you, your studies here will have been made possible my financial and other sacrifices made by parents, partners, other family members, perhaps your children, maybe your friends who put up with your complaints about workload and non-availability for social activities.
  4. and finally, the many clinical educators in the field who supervised you on placement-health degrees are only possible with the generous support of professionals in the health sector, private practices, disability agencies and so on.

When asked to deliver this oration this morning, I asked a colleague what sorts of things one might say. Her advice was to draw on personal experience and anecdotes. Dangerous advice really, because after 37 years of professional practice there is a lot to draw on, BUT we don't have that long…. Her comment did make me reflect on my career path and what of that might be useful to pass on. When I say 'career path' I want you to understand that this path has not had a straight trajectory- it's followed interesting side paths, and taken me in directions I never imagined as a new graduate. Why is that? Well-I have allowed my curiosity, thirst for knowledge, need for change, desire to 'do things differently', and risk-taking disposition to have free rein. And as a result, I have never been bored.

Working with clients and patients is truly rewarding, for me and I hope for them. I love stories, and every client brings me a new story to unravel, understand and embed myself in, even for a brief time. What a privilege this is, to work with my clients and their families to create a new life story which accommodates their adaptation to injury, illness or disability. This challenges my knowledge and skills, demands a creative response, encourages me to take a risk - within the safe bounds of evidence-based practice of course!

Let me share on story with you that illustrates some of this. In 1976, I became the first speech pathologist to work north of Townsville in Far North Qld. I used to tell people my territory went from Townsville to Moscow. My supervisor was 2000kms away in Brisbane-quite a dangerous thing for a risk-taking new graduate! There were some families living on isolated cattle properties on The Cape, with children in need of speech therapy. Regular travel to Cairns where I was based was impossible for them. The vagaries of the roads and light plane travel made even one-off scheduled appointments for assessment and advice hard to keep. Cairns had a Royal Flying Doctor Service base co-located with the School of the Air. Although I was not allowed to fly with them, I could use their radio system in down times. So with technical help from their staff I would conduct parent interviews and as best as I could, conduct speech and language assessments over the crackling radio system. I would mail a program for the parents to deliver at home, and if the parents called me 24 hrs in advance that they were 'coming to town' for whatever reason, I would come in to see them after hours. Looking back, I think I would call this pioneering speech pathology services using low-tech telehealth; however at the time it was just a creative solution to a problem that needed attention.

Not quite like SBS: 7 million stories and counting – but rich and rewarding nonetheless. Some of these stories have taken place overseas. For more than a decade I have worked in Vietnam; initially taking physiotherapy, occupational therapy and speech pathology students on placement in an orphanage for children with severe disabilities. Our goal was to build the capacity of staff to assist the children's development of play, communication, mobility, eating and drinking, and self-care. From this developed networks which led to an invitation from Pham Ngoc Thach University of Medicine to help them establish Vietnam's first speech therapy program. I am academic advisor to that program and director of a small NGO Trinh Foundation Australia which colleagues and I established to provide financial and professional support for speech therapy in Vietnam. I meet all my own costs to go over regularly to assist with examinations, curriculum development and quality assurance. What an honour this is.

Another story: while most of the speech therapy students are already trained health professionals, one student is an accountant working for a disability NGO in Hue. She had been trained by a visiting aid volunteer to deliver speech therapy for children after their cleft palates had been repaired. I watched her deliver therapy one afternoon to an 8 year old girl –Thuy- who had had her surgery 6 months earlier. We sat on bamboo mats on the dirt floor of her family home, having traveled along rutted dirt tracks, on motor bikes to reach her rural village. Anh delivered a very good therapy session.

The joy in the faces of the girl and her parents as Thuy produced speech sounds not possible only a few weeks before, reminded me of two things: why I trained to be a health professional, and the power of engagement in the development of health services in the emerging economies. I urge you to make time in your lives to undertake this type of work at some stage in the future. Right now your focus should be on consolidating your clinical skills, paying off your HECS debt perhaps. But look for opportunities to engage in development work – you don’t need to go abroad to do such work of course; we have huge needs here. For example, look at what Gabi Hollows achieved in establishing the Hollows Foundation. And you can support development work through financial support, provision of professional resources and peer mentoring of colleagues who are working in resource poor countries.

I am sure you will create many new stories of compassionate and skilled health care for your clients. As you do so, keep these things in mind:

Follow the side paths!
Take risks! Challenge yourself! Keep learning!
Have fun!
Be passionate about your work!
And take pride in your professional achievements!

I wish you all rewarding careers as health professionals.