In the most remote parts of Australia, there are no high schools or long-term, face-to-face training and employment opportunities.
In Xenia Girdler’s words, with beauty and remoteness comes harsh reality, where locals struggle to access what many in large cities take for granted.
Girdler coordinates Vocational Alcohol, Other Drugs (AOD) and Mental Health studies at RMIT. Four years ago, she began working with leading Aboriginal health provider Sunrise Health Service, which operates 10 community health centres in remote communities east of Katherine in the Northern Territory.
In an effort to make vocational education and training accessible to people living in such remote areas, Girdler contextualised nationally accredited training programs to deliver a Diploma of Community Services (AOD and Mental Health) and a Certificate IV in Alcohol and Other Drugs for Sunrise and other health agency staff.
Sunrise Health’s Business and Operations Manager, Dale Campbell, has worked with Girdler and RMIT since the beginning. Campbell stresses the importance of delivering tertiary level qualifications in Australia’s most isolated centres.
“A meaningful qualification provides an opportunity for individuals to get high-paid jobs and become self-sustainable,” he says. “A number of people who work at Sunrise may never have had this opportunity. The sky is the limit for them now.”
RMIT’s strong reputation in the Northern Territory reflects a new way of engaging with industry partners to deliver vocational training in remote communities. Campbell says the partnership has not only been beneficial for individual students, but shows a wider community plagued by economic uncertainty what can be achieved with further education.
“Sunrise knew we were working with a high-quality organisation, prepared to listen and work with us to accommodate a number of difficulties and challenges,” he says. “We expected nothing less.”
More than 3000 kilometres from RMIT’s campuses in Melbourne, Jocelyn Dhu began her Diploma in Community Services in Katherine – almost 19 years after leaving high school. Jocelyn says none of her previous studies compared to the RMIT program.
“The lecturers were amazing. I gained more knowledge from them than I ever would from a textbook,” she says. Today, having obtained an RMIT qualification, Dhu is considering an undergraduate degree and is on the path to becoming a casual employee at RMIT, something she never thought she would be able to do.
At its core, the curriculum Girdler developed is practice-themed, taking into account the diverse experience each individual brings into the program. Like Dhu, her students are mostly mature age and working in the community services sector.
Despite the flexibility on offer, the program brings unique challenges with its success. Girdler and her team of teaching staff have spent most of the last four years travelling between the most isolated corners of the Northern Territory.
She estimates that the group has covered more than 100,000 kilometres to deliver the qualifications. But Girdler does not dwell on the challenges. Opportunities now exist to expand education and research beyond Katherine to other remote communities.
“For me, it’s about offering hope and choice through education and training,” she says. “If we can achieve this, I think we have achieved a lot.”
Story: Madeleine Babiolakis
Photo: Xenia Girdler
This story was first published in RMIT's Making Connections magazine.