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My Story — Student Voice: Karlie James

Karlie James has had an enduring dream to study medicine, one that has not been shaken despite considerable setbacks.

When her young son fell ill, Karlie’s career path took on a new significance and she continues to strive for a future that will benefit herself and her family.

My name is Karlie and I am a proud YortaYorta, GunaiKurnai and Kuku Djungan woman. I grew up in a small town called Katherine in the Northern Territory. My parents met there, but both my maternal and paternal origins are in Victoria, Queensland and the Torres Strait Islands.

I spent many years contemplating university study after leaving halfway through Year 12 to help my family. During high school I enjoyed all science subjects and chose these as my core electives including physics, chemistry and biology. I grew a passion for living science and considered studying health science or medicine. When I approached the school careers advisor to help with a pathway, I was instantly told to aim for something “more achievable” and that I would not get into such a hard degree.

This was one of many experiences growing up and being told that basically I was never good enough. I remember feeling so upset. It was in an era with an emerging multicultural population in the Territory and students would interact, but some teachers made unfounded judgements about my capabilities, and their derogatory comments left an indelible mark.

After leaving high school, I felt deflated and wished I had an opportunity to study; I felt my life plans were no longer aligned because I didn’t finish high school. Instead of further education, I got a full-time job. I became a solo homeowner at 21 and a single mother at 22. My new focus was on my son and his future. I worked in various government positions gaining qualifications, but I still had a strong desire to go to university. I always kept my childhood dream of studying medicine in the back of my mind.

I met someone when my son turned two and spent almost a decade being a full-time working mother and having three more children. Whilst on maternity leave after the birth of my third son Jacob, I decided to try enrol into a degree. I used a Certificate IV qualification and was accepted into a Bachelor of Science, with a major in biomedicine through Charles Darwin University. I had just turned 30 and really wanted to study ‘before it was too late’ so I enrolled as a full-time external student.

At that point, I was at home with a two-year-old and a newborn, with my seven-year-old at school. Money was tight, but I managed to pick up second-hand furniture and set up a study space which I used during the baby’s nap times and did around 85 per cent of my study at night. I would even study for exams at playgroup and use playtime with the kids to teach them about various anatomy, which I secretly did for my own learning. I incorporated study into the daily routine as much as I could with my children, and they enjoyed their mum teaching them new things. We even had a classroom-sized whiteboard in our dining area.

I received a cadetship from the Northern Territory Government Department of Health during my second year. Overall, it was an exciting, yet daunting, time and being an external student in a science degree was tough. Online resources and lab simulations were great, but attending block lab practicals meant I needed to travel to university with my family. Despite the challenges, I excelled and completed my first two years of university.

We had relocated to Katherine—my hometown—and it was with a newfound confidence that I applied through Flinders University to study medicine. Two months after applying, our whole lives took a different turn. In February 2017, my youngest son who had turned two by then, fell ill. When I took him to the hospital, we found out that he had acute lymphoblastic leukemia. We were required to immediately relocate to Adelaide for life saving cancer treatment.

The first few weeks were a blur whilst my son underwent diagnosis and intensive chemotherapy. He had the less common T-cell subtype which required longer treatment. We stayed at Ronald MacDonald house and met so many families going through serious childhood illness. It was life changing and the most difficult time of our lives.

I continued to study to keep my mind busy and learn more about the body especially blood cells and biological testing. The university were very supportive when I explained my situation. We spent 15 months in Adelaide with my son while he went through the gruelling intensive treatment. During this period, I managed to successfully complete my degree and get accepted into the Doctor of Medicine. We relocated back to Darwin in May 2018, and I graduated (heavily pregnant) with a BSCI. I deferred from study to relocate and give birth to my fourth child—another son—in June 2018.

Jacob is still in treatment and has completed over two and a half years of a three and a half-year protocol. He is in long-term maintenance and requires regular chemotherapy but is well enough to go to school and we have tried to make his life as normal as possible. He still requires trips to Adelaide for treatment and monthly IV treatment in Darwin.

In February 2019, I began the Doctor of Medicine. I am now halfway through my first year and enjoying the course.

I think being a mature age student and having exposure to the workforce for so long left me in a position of knowing what I wanted and staying very focused. I think people (women) like myself need so much encouragement to even take the plunge into uni.

I am a different person since tertiary education. It has been life changing and has given me a new perspective on everything. Even more so when Jacob became sick while I was studying. I have so many pics of him on my laptop pretending to do assignments. He says to me (in his little voice) “You’re going to uni hey mum, so you can become a doctor and help people like the doctors help me?” The first time he said that to me while I was driving I burst into tears.

I reflect on the past three years and feel much gratitude — foremost that my son is responding well to treatment, and also that I am making my dreams to study a reality. I feel compelled to share my story in the hope that it can inspire other people, especially Indigenous women, that anything is possible and to never give up on a dream.

Read more inspiring stories of student success here.

Posted 8 October 2019 Posted in General, Indigenous, My Story — Student Voice, Regional, rural and remote