by Lauren Hislop
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Perusing through history books, there are events one may see as a blemish on our timeline. This is how I perceive my two years studying social work - it tainted my worldview for many years. In the moment of applying for the degree, I believed I was on the pathway of becoming a productive citizen. This is the moment one reads the story and screams at the main character, 'Don’t go in the haunted house!' Unfortunately, dear reader, I went into the house! I applied for social work in November 2000, convinced it was a guarantee of employment. Obviously, I failed to read the fine print. The degree was only offered at Callaghan campus. I was living on the Central Coast so, this meant relocating to Newcastle. This instilled in me a sense of excitement, however, having found out in late January that I was accepted, it was too late to find accommodation. Prior to being accepted, candidates had to meet a lecturer for an interview. I met a woman with a demure and unassuming manner. She told me I would be accepted into the course but expressed her uncertainty regarding my chance of success. However, they were 'willing to see how I would go'. I thought the comment strange, nonetheless I wasn’t daunted. Having completed a Bachelor of Arts, I only had to study two subjects each semester in my first year: Introduction to Social Work and Introduction to Psychology. The former was only one day a week, which meant I only travelled to Newcastle from home once a week. I was able to study psychology at my local campus. My cousin and his wife lived in Newcastle and they were happy for me to stay one night each week. With three young children, this was extremely kind! Mum drove me to their house on the evening before the lecture and picked me up the following day. Without the support of my mother, attending Newcastle campus wouldn’t be possible. I caught a taxi to and from campus. I had never independently caught a train, something most people without a disability probably take for granted. Unfortunately, this lasted only a few weeks, because I was unable to arrange personal care. My additional needs often presented challenges when pursuing my aspirations. I was an independent spirit and simultaneously requiring physical support. It was frustrating! At orientation, I met the disability advisor, Liz, who had a warm nature and I couldn’t help being drawn to her. Although she did share with me an interesting piece of information: there had been students with a disability who studied Social Work, however, they all failed! While this was confronting, I was determined I would indisputably succeed. But I felt a sense of ambivalence when I entered my first social work class. I thought ‘I have a degree and yet here I am, starting another one’. I resented the fact that I had to undertake an additional degree to join the workforce. However, I tried not to lose sight of my ultimate goal: to gain employment. I reassured myself that the additional study would be worth it. There were only 45 students in the class. Upon entering the room, we were directed to sit in a circle, on seats or cushions on the floor. There were three lecturers, one of whom asked us what colour best described how we felt? I thought this was a stupid question, I stated: ‘multi coloured’ to which only a few people giggled. I felt incredibly out of place with most of the other students and this had seldom occurred before. As I parked my wheelchair outside the class and strode into the room with an uneven gait, many of the young students gave me perplexed expressions. I envisioned thought bubbles above their heads: “how was someone with disability accepted into this course?” I assumed they thought people such as myself would be their potential clients and not their colleagues. I received similar vibes from some of the lecturers. Pushing aside any twinges of insecurity, I adamantly maintained the position that I deserved to be there as much as anyone else. During first year, we were placed into groups to complete projects. We were provided with butchers paper and pens. One person in the group had to write down what the other members asked. Faced with brightly coloured pens on a frayed carpet, I knew I would never get to be the scribe. Ordinarily I would not have been bothered. However, these practices seemed hypocritical, considering lecturers professed the importance of inclusion. As someone with a disability, I have had much contact with health care professionals, I have felt powerless. When we had class discussions, I would express fear about having too much power as a social worker. Many students glanced at me perplexed. Being on campus only one day a week made it challenging to foster friendships with the other students. However, as my first year drew to a close, I made a few friends in the course. I would speed across campus to have lunch with comrades who shared similar ideologies to mine. Our motive for choosing this career path was to change social structures maintaining inequality. Our pursuit was to empower people who were disadvantaged and to ensure their voices were heard. I planned to move from home on the Central Coast to Newcastle in my second year. I believed this would enable me to nurture my new friendships and dedicate more time to study. I received high marks at the end of the year and as I drifted off to sleep one Summer’s night, I felt relieved that I had survived my first year! Although I found the course extremely challenging, I reminded myself that once I had this degree, I would have the assurance of employment and become a productive, self-sufficient woman. I would have purchasing power and could make a difference to people’s lives. 'I must keep these thoughts at the forefront of my mind,' I muttered, 'Ultimately, it will transport me to the promised land: the workforce!'