When Sandra Eades left her home in suburban Perth to study medicine at the University of Newcastle in 1985, no one outside her family thought she would succeed.
She was part of an intake of four Aboriginal students and the first person in her family to attend university.
“It was so uncommon, people did not want you to get your hopes up too high and be disappointed,” she says. “Once I got there, if all the rhetoric was true and I wasn’t good enough, I just wanted to know that I had given it everything that I had got.”
Six years later, Robyn Williams, who had dropped out of Balga high school in year 10 in 1981, looked to Eades when she decided to embark on a sociology degree at Perth’s Edith Cowan University. They were from the same community, an area with a high Aboriginal population, a high proportion of public housing and a lot of social problems.
In 2013, Williams was accepted as a PhD candidate, studying foetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
“I remember [Eades studying medicine] was so inspiring,” Williams says. “I don’t know whether I didn’t think I could do it, before then, but I was so inspired.”
By the time Christine Clinch went to study medicine at the University of Western Australia, after years spent as an Aboriginal Health Worker, both Eades and Williams were working in the field – Williams as a lecturer at Edith Cowan, and Eades as the first Aboriginal medical practitioner to be granted a PhD.
Clinch graduated from medicine in 2008, and now works as a lecturer at the centre for Aboriginal medical and dental health at the University of Western Australia.
Eades is an associate dean and medical professor at the University of Melbourne. Williams is a senior researcher at Curtin University.
All three come from the same Aboriginal community in Balga, a disadvantaged suburb in Perth. Doctors Paula Edgil, now a lecturer at the University of Western Australia, and Shauna Hill, who, like Williams, dropped out of Balga senior high school in year 10, are also from that community.
The five women returned this week as ambassadors of the Wadjak Northside Aboriginal community centre, which has begun operating as a community health research hub.
Most of them juggled university with raising their young children. Two had dropped out of high school. Three studied as mature-age students.
Clinch says she had faced discrimination, but it was covert. Whispers, that were not supposed to get back to her, that she had not earned her place.
“It’s absolute rubbish,” she says. “We heard all that. We had to deal with that.”
Now, she looks to help other Aboriginal people who want to take up medicine, particularly older women who, like her, have worked as Aboriginal Health Workers and could be great doctors, if given a push. “I have known so many people who I thought would have been great doctors.”
Eades says she was told early on that she would have to be twice as good, and took that to heart.
“I am a woman; I am Aboriginal: obviously doors don’t open as easily,” she says. “You have to be really good and really help open those doors.”