News details

Jess McNamara

Last Edit

Swimming against a rip

Sometimes advocacy gets personal.
Like you, I have been a student at La Trobe, and at times, studying has been difficult (even impossible).
This is a personal message from me to you.
Your advocate, Michelle.

When I first attempted uni, fresh out of VCE, I struggled. I really struggled. I had moved away from home, from a small town in rural Victoria, to the middle of Melbourne. I was unprepared in every way. A high ATAR isn’t everything.

What no one told me at the time was that it was not my fault that I was struggling. It wasn’t because I wasn’t good enough, smart enough, or whatever. It was because I had a serious health condition, then undiagnosed. I didn’t know that panic attacks, spontaneous blood noses, overwhelming nausea, dizzy spells or my hair falling out was my body saying “help”. My concentration was severely affected. So was my memory. And, of course, my confidence smashed. After scraping by with a pass in first semester, and spending more time crying than not, I deferred, and went home, ashamed, embarrassed and humiliated.

I returned to uni 18 months later. This time, my anxiety was reasonably well managed, and I made friends, had a social life, studied successfully, and achieved excellent results. But then I became pregnant. I was unwell, I skipped classes, my motivation slipped away, and I became depressed. Nobody from the uni asked, where are you? Are you OK? I deferred again.

Four years later, I attended a different uni – this time, La Trobe, in Bendigo. I loved it. I thrived. Sweeney’s, friends, placements, assessments, lectures, all of it – I cruised through and aced it. What was the difference? I’d grown up, I had my health condition under control, and help was available – from lecturers, friends and family.

The thing is, I still had to work hard for my marks. Really hard. And because I have multiple disabilities, I had to work hard to manage these, too, and to present myself as ‘normal’ (that is, not disabled) to everyone around me. It takes a lot of energy to ‘make up’ for one’s disabilities.

That’s why we now have Learning Access Plans (LAP) available for students through the Equity & Diversity Advisors: these help the University work out how the uni can change (not the student) to make “reasonable adjustments” to enable better access for the student. These adjustments should be individualised for the student, i.e. your LAP should be about what you need. The student does not have to ask for these adjustments or share their LAP with lecturers. It’s worth having a chat with your tutor or lecturer to let them know what is going on for you, but don’t expect a relaxation of academic standards - you’re here to learn.

If you find yourself struggling with aspects of uni, like I did, we have plenty of support available for you through the student wellbeing teams or student advocacy (myself included!). Talk to someone, anyone, and ask, who do you think can help me? We can all refer within the uni or community and help you find the right person for you. Support makes a difference. Use it.

If you’d like to talk about your experience of disability or a serious health condition, talk to your student advocate, Michelle