“I think I’m like a long-distance runner who finishes their race after dark, after the marquees are packed up and everyone else has gone home.”
When Sue Smith started her university studies in her early forties, not only did she feel that she had long missed the starter gun, but the conditions for success were not in her favour.
“When I was young, my goal in life was to finish high school and go to university to study law.
“However, an accumulation of tricky life experiences, including my mother’s passing, resulted in me not sitting my Year 12 exams. For the next 25 years, I felt quite upset whenever I had to tick a box that said I didn’t finish high school,” she says.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing after qualifying for university through the Special Tertiary Admissions Test (STAT), the Queensland test for mature-aged students.
“At the time I was renting an old farmhouse about 1.5 hours out of Tenterfield that did not have electricity or internet connection. I applied to UNE because they had a long-distance study program which provided a study room attached to the TAFE in Tenterfield. That gave me an opportunity once a week to use a computer and access my learning materials.”
There were further hurdles ahead that could have easily seen her admit defeat.
“It took me until I was 53 years of age to finish my Bachelor of Arts. There were many times I felt I would not complete it. During that time, I experienced divorce, health issues, and various other big challenges in my personal life. I nearly gave up several times, but somehow the UNE systems of student support looked after me and kept me going,” she says.
She stayed the course, proving not only to be a champion herself, but also a champion of others.
Through her major in Peace Studies and minor in Political and International Studies, she found her niche in researching and advocating for social justice and equity for older women.
Sue was awarded First Class Honours for her thesis in Political and International Studies, completed in 2021, titled ‘The Displaced Homemaker Dilemma: The Impoverishment of Older Australian Women’ and UNE’s Arthur J Davies Prize in Politics, for the most outstanding result in Honours in the field of Australian Politics and Public Administration.
In 2021, she provided a submission to the Queensland Government’s Women’s Safety and Justice Taskforce, presenting evidence on older women’s social and economic vulnerability.
She will also deliver a presentation on her area of research at the upcoming Australian Institute of Family Studies National Conference.
“The purpose of my research is to identify and expose the difficulties encountered by many ‘displaced homemakers’ in Australia today – women who have spent their working life doing unpaid work in the home – so that their issues can be better understood and represented by decision-makers who design and create social welfare services.”
Now embarking on the marathon experience of a PhD on the same topic, supervised by Associate Professor Jo Coghlan and Dr Sonya Glavac, she feels far better equipped than when she began her studies.
“I enjoy looking back and seeing how my academic personality has evolved.”
“When I first began studying my Bachelor of Arts degree, I would only focus on the assessment tasks. I did not approach my study from a learning perspective, but rather a tick the box and move on to the next unit perspective.
“At the beginning of a unit, I would start to work straight away on my assignments, skipping quickly over lectures, required readings and instructions. I very often did not even introduce myself in the unit forum and would try to complete the unit without interacting with the lecturer or other students at all.
“I approached my studies as a means to an end. However, through their passion for the material they were teaching, several of my lecturers inspired me to develop an inquiring mind that asks questions and seeks knowledge in my everyday life as well as in my work as a researcher.
“I began to be aware that I was letting myself down by not fully embracing the opportunities that a university education provides. My approach to study became one where I actively sought to learn how to learn, and how to ask questions, seek answers, and analyse information.
“Subsequently, my university experience became much more fulfilling, interesting, and productive. I began to interact on forums, read the required and the recommended readings, ask questions and absorb the material I was studying.
“I now seek out, read, and watch and listen to, all the learning materials available to me and spend much more time preparing and planning and thinking about my approach to a paper or research task.”
With a newfound hunger for learning, Sue made sure her academic skills were sharp before undertaking her research.
“At the beginning of my Honours year, I worked my way through all the UNE resources I could find and access online regarding how to study, how to research, how to write, how to use the library, how to communicate with my supervisor, and how to use endnote.
“Even though I had developed some of these skills while studying my Bachelor of Arts degree, I started at the beginning and relearnt how to study, and how to access and use study tools and resources. I cannot recommend this process more highly. It underpins my work every day, because it has taught me how to seek out and follow instructions, guidelines, and advice.”
Though only at the beginning of my PhD, Sue knows she now has the confidence, skills and passion to carry her through to completion – and to further research and advocacy work beyond that.
“I hope to keep researching and publicly representing the social issue that my PhD investigates. There are many precipitating factors to the problem that warrant further research beyond the scope of my PhD.
“I am extremely grateful to every person who helped me because my self-esteem and my life experience have both improved extraordinarily since I completed my Bachelor of Arts degree.”