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Optometry student spearheads efforts to attract Indigenous Australians into university education

A Deakin optometry student who pursued a career in healthcare after seeing her family’s health deteriorate to diabetes and eye disease is fronting a new campaign to inspire more Indigenous Australians into higher education.

Ms Shahnaz Rind, who has previously completed a Bachelor of Nursing at the same university, is one of four students to feature in the Indigenous OpportUNIty campaign, launched by Universities Australia during NAIDOC week with the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium (NATSIHEC).

Rind is a 27-year-old Yamatji-Badimaya woman from north-west Western Australia who moved to Melbourne for her final years of high school before heading to Deakin University.

After completing her nursing degree in 2018, she became a project officer at the Youth Affairs Council Victoria working with Indigenous young people across the state, and this year commenced her optometry degree.

“I decided on optometry after conducting a survey into eyes and what they mean to people. I think they’re significantly underestimated, especially coming from an Aboriginal community and family where elders and young people just think ‘yeah you lose eyesight as you get older’, which is true but there are so many ways to prevent and treat it,” she said.

When Rind eventually enters the optometry profession, she will be one of approximately 12 (0.2% of 6,043) optometrists who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, according to the latest Optometry Board of Australia figures. Those numbers are even lower in ophthalmology where Dr Kris Rallah-Baker became the first and only Indigenous eye doctor in 2018.

Shahnaz Rind already has a degree in nursing and is now studying to become an optometrist.

In her family, Rind has seen the debilitating effects of diabetes. A respected elder in her community known as a grandmother to many has lost limbs and her father has had heart issues due to the disease. She suspects other relatives have undiagnosed diabetic eye disease, and some have recently had cataract surgery.

“And that’s just my own family, there are plenty of others in the wider community who are going through cataract surgeries and diabetic retinopathy that wasn’t diagnosed or treated at an early stage,” she said.

“My nan, who’s eyesight was deteriorating a lot, wasn’t actually diagnosed or even looked at because our mob doesn’t really go to get their eyes checked unless people come out to them. And that all comes down to cultural safety as well; because there are no community members in that healthcare system to make them feel safe and approachable.”

Her message to prospective students on the challenge of university study is: “Our people have been resilient for 60,000 years plus. Keep going.”

Creating pathways

The Indigenous OpportUNIty campaign features a series of short social media videos, as well as a website for potential students on university pathways.

In addition to Rind, the campaign features video profiles of:

  • Becki Cook – a Nunukul woman of the Quandamooka people of Minjerribah or Stradbroke Island, who completed a Bachelor of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Education and is an HDR candidate completing a Master of Education and Professional Studies Research at Griffith University.
  • Liam Birch – A Torres Strait Islander man from Thursday Island and a second-year business student at Griffith University.
  • Tim Goodwin – a Yuin man from south-coast NSW who completed his high school years in Canberra. After completing a law degree at The Australian National University, he went on to be a barrister practising in Melbourne.

Universities Australia CEO Ms Catriona Jackson said sustained Indigenous recruitment strategies across Australian universities has meant there are more Indigenous students than ever before.

“Nearly 20,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are now studying at university – a doubling over the past decade. But universities know more needs to be done,” Jackson said.

“Barriers remain and it’s not always easy to see a pathway to uni – particularly for those who are the first in their family to consider higher education. That’s why this campaign is designed to both inspire and inform potential Indigenous students.”

More than half of Indigenous university graduates (59%) earn a thousand dollars a week or more, compared to only 15% of Indigenous year 12 graduates.

Indigenous undergraduates also earn more and are more likely to be employed than non-Indigenous undergraduates immediately upon graduation.

More reading

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Only half of Australian diabetics getting recommended eye checks