A stronger community at university means more visibility more diversity and more voices heard

Bachelor of Nutrition Student Sharna Motlap Indigenous Allied Health Australia IAHA Leadership Program | Torrens University

Bachelor of Nutrition student Sharna Motlap, a proud Indigenous woman from Hammond Island in the Torres Strait and the Mbabaram tribe in far north Queensland, has seized every opportunity on offer during her studies at Torrens University Australia.

Her industry experiences and connection to community continue to provide endless options as she nears the end of her degree and plans for her New Colombo Plan placement in China.

During her studies, Sharna also worked as a Program Officer in her local community in Mackay for Deadly Choices, took part in the NHMRC Indigenous Internship Program, and is currently in the middle of a Leadership Program with Indigenous Allied Health Australia (IAHA) which will finish in October this year.

The 2022 IAHA Leadership program is a culturally responsive leadership development program for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workforce.

“I am developing leadership skills that extend beyond a workplace, it is a life-long journey that enables us to create positive change in our communities. This program connected me to so many other Indigenous health students from all different backgrounds and professions,” says Sharna.

Sharna Motlap | Indigenous Allied Health Australia | IAHA | Torrens University

Sharna taking part in the Indigenous Allied Health Australia (IAHA) Top End program (also lead image)

Passion for improving health outcomes for Indigenous Australians

Her drive to make a positive contribution to the improvement of health outcomes for Indigenous Australians was born from her work in community engagement at an Indigenous health clinic. It was here that the health inequities for First Nations people were highlighted, creating the focus for her studies and career aspirations.

Sharna has just gained full time employment while she is completing the final semester of her Bachelor of Nutrition online and set to graduate later this year.

Her new role is with the PANDORA (Pregnancy and Neonatal Diabetes Outcomes in Remote Australia) study team at Menzies School of Health Research and involves data collection for a diabetes study aimed at improving care systems and services for Indigenous mothers and their children in rural and remote communities in the Northern Territory, Far North Queensland and the Kimberley.

“This role aligns with my goals of improving Indigenous health outcomes. Since working in community engagement and studying nutrition, my interest in health and chronic diseases eventually became more focused on using evidence in prevention and public health,” says Sharna.

“My current role is another great addition to my early career journey in Indigenous health, and also a huge step toward my professional goals in health research.”

The results of this study will contribute to policy and clinical practice guidelines on the management of diabetes in pregnancy and follow-up of mother and baby.

It’s personal

Having experienced her own challenges with her relationship with food, Sharna made the decision to improve her health and it improved her overall quality of life. It was this interest in diet and health that led Sharna to enrol in a Bachelor of Nutrition at Torrens University Australia, and where she said her interest soon became a passion.

It was during her Bachelor of Nutrition where she learned in-depth knowledge about the impact of nutrition on Indigenous health outcomes and a career focus was born.

“Learning about topics such as Indigenous health makes everything more personal in a way that most of the student body may not relate to,” says Sharna.

“I knew that was the career I wanted to work towards, because it’s personal to me, and my journey, and my community.” 

A world of options

Sharna was a successful recipient of the 2021 New Colombo Plan Scholarship and was set to travel to Shanghai, China to broaden her industry experience on a global stage, but due to COVID restrictions on overseas travel, her plan has been postponed until 2023.

 Sharna Motlap | New Colombo Plan | Canberra | Torrens University

The New Colombo Plan scholarship aims to increase knowledge of the Indo-Pacific in Australia by supporting undergraduate students to undertake internships and studies in the Indo-pacific.

Sharna’s excitement is ramping up. She recently spent an “inspirational and insightful” time in Canberra for a National Summit, connecting with other New Colombo Plan scholars, alumni, academic and industry leaders and participating in an informative pre-departure training.

“I look forward to following everyone else's journey all over the globe and commencing my own program overseas which includes language training and an internship at a health organisation,” says Sharna.

Excellence from opportunity

Sharna has earned a number of scholarships while studying at Torrens University Australia, proudly offered to our First Nations students as part of our robust Reconciliation Action Plan.

“Gaining scholarships isn’t only helpful financially, it’s also motivating,” says Sharna.

She says it’s important to offer scholarship opportunities to Indigenous students to support and acknowledge their value, and also their efforts.

“Time is a valuable resource and with my scholarship support I’ve been able to dedicate time towards my studies,” reflects Sharna.

“I’ve been able to prioritise study, over work commitments, without compromising income and affording a laptop.”

These scholarships greatly enhanced Sharna’s academic experience: 2019-2021 Torrens Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Costs Scholarship, 2020 Health, Nursing & Education Scholarship, 2021 Puggy Hunter Memorial Scholarship Scheme, 2021 Indigenous Allied Health Australia High School to Health Careers Top End Program, 2021 Aurora Indigenous Scholarship Funded Internship, 2021-22 NHMRC Virtual Indigenous Internship Program.

“A stronger community means more visibility, more diversity and more voices heard.”

“Community is embedded in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture,” says Sharna.

“A sense of community is such an essential aspect so the plans in place for increasing Indigenous specific projects at Torrens University Australia is important because it creates space for community and connections.”

Torrens University Australia’s Indigenous Yarning space initiative rolled out during the height of the pandemic in 2021 and there are exciting progressive plans for our Indigenous students including an Indigenous working committee, special events, and Indigenous Student Leadership opportunities.

Sharna was selected as a student leader by Torrens University Australia’s Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander Liaison Officer, Rochelle Morris, during her studies and it was an experience she’s grateful for.

“Being invited to be a part of the Reconciliation Action Plan committee as a student voice, being a part of upcoming projects, being a part of events made me feel that I am part of this university,” says Sharna.

“But it also means that I’ll graduate with so much more than a degree because of all the opportunities and experiences I’ll have had.”

Our special sauce

Asking for help isn’t the easiest for Sharna but whilst on her journey at Torrens University Australia she soon discovered that help is always available.

“Gaining a traditional formal education through a cultural perspective can sometimes make you feel out of place,” Sharna shares.

“I felt safe and comfortable being honest about my academic experience, including the good and the bad. I felt listened to, understood, and visible. I truly do appreciate the staff I’ve worked with from Torrens.”

“It’s expert advice just for you, and it’s combined with support and empathy,” says Sharna, acknowledging her Success Coach, Randa Karzone, as a mentor.

It is the flexibility in her studies that has allowed her to engage in some phenomenal opportunities. Arranging extensions on assessments allowed Sharna to travel to Darwin and Katherine for the IAHA Scholarship mid semester.

“Being able to access mental health help has been crucial for me personally, specifically being able to talk to someone within Torrens University,” Sharna adds.

“It’s helped me develop the skills needed to deal with a lot of things inside and outside of university.”

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