Coming to ANU from the small town of Murwillumbah on the north coast of NSW, Vanamali knew she wanted to study topics that would let her make a change and help communities. A Year 12 trip to the National Youth Science Forum convinced her that ANU was the place to pursue her goals.
“From then on I was pretty set on coming to the ANU. I am very grateful to have had very supportive parents and teachers who encouraged me to aim for Australia’s top university.”
Vanamali pursued law and politics, aiming to understand power, justice and society. However, something was missing for her; she looked elsewhere for answers, and found sociology instead. It set her on a path to discover more about not only society, but about herself.
“I took SOCY1001 on a whim at the beginning of my second year, without actually knowing what sociology was, and fell in love with what I was studying. Sociology taught me critical thinking skills like never before, and helped me make sense of my own position in society. Most sociology students will probably recall C. Wright Mills and what he calls the Sociological Imagination - a way of thinking that allows you to connect personal troubles to public issues. This gave me a really useful framework to analyse my own life; I realised a lot of the challenges and barriers I’d faced hadn’t been individual experiences, but a result of broader systems and structures.”
Overcoming challenges is an essential part of Vanamali’s story at ANU. Despite her family’s financial circumstances making studying the HSC difficult, she persevered, earning early entry into ANU and a Scholarship to support her to move and study in Canberra. However, the greatest challenge was ahead, when her dad’s carer, her mother, fell ill during her first year of study.
“At the end my first year mum got very sick, and acquired quadriplegia and a whole other array of disabilities. My mum was trapped in hospital for nearly two years, so I spent more time in hospitals than out, and had to defer, then drop most of my subjects. My dad wasn’t capable of looking after himself without my mum as his carer, and suddenly I was tasked with caring for both my parents and keeping our family together. I had to find both my parents supported accommodation, pack up and sell their house, and move them out of regional Australia to Canberra so they might have a chance at accessing the services they needed, and so I had a chance at staying here and finishing my degree.”
The challenge for Vanamali was immense in every way, physically, emotionally and financially. She remains modest about how she dealt with the pressure, and is realistic about the challenges that remain. But as she approaches graduation, she realises that she made it through the worst, crediting the unconditional love and support of friends, and the emergency support available from the university.
Two figures also stand out for her as influencing her success, her mum, and Dr Liz Allen from ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods.
“I’d be remiss to not name my mum first. Her way of teaching me has been through embodiment; she has embodied resilience and survival, and kept the fire in my belly alive. Another incredible woman that has given me the drive to keep pushing through my studies is Dr Liz Allen. Liz is a survivor, and has lived through sexual abuse, institutionalisation, homelessness, teen motherhood and extreme poverty.”
Vanamali’s is not a unique story. There are many students who have responsibilities as carers, and it can be an isolating and formidable challenge. She cares deeply about the issue, co-founding the ANU Carers Collective, bringing together students with similar experiences and building relationships to encourage recognition of and support for carers.
“I think one of the important takeaways from this initiative has been the process of acknowledging that carers do exist on campus,” Vanamali says. “If we want to make the ANU community stronger, I think it necessitates us rewriting that script and going, “hang on a minute, who are we forgetting?” It’s important our national university can provide a home to everyone. It means having Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and staff, disabled students and staff, students and staff who come from poverty, or who are carers, have the self-determination to design the support systems they know they could benefit from.”
Despite the challenges, Vanamali has enjoyed a range of exciting opportunities while studying at ANU. She was named the winner in Sociology in the Global Undergraduate Awards, for her essay about environmental sociology and mining on Garawa, Yanyuwa, Gudanji and Mara country. She was awarded the Foundation for Young Australian Writer’s for Change Award for an article published in Woroni. She enjoyed professional opportunities with the School of Sociology and the Aurora Foundation, researching obesity and place making in rural NSW, and living in Alice Spring looking at Indigenous engagement with the NDIS. Days out from graduation, she returned to Canberra from a six-month exchange to the University of Texas Austin, an experience she described as life changing.
After graduating, Vanamali will begin her honours thesis through the ANU Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy research. Analysing the NDIS’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Engagement Strategy, she also wants to look at different conceptions of disability being operationalised, and why support services are failing mob." She plans to pursue a Master of Social Work, and potentially doing further research.
“I’m looking forward to hopefully being the social worker a younger version of myself would have benefitted from. Research is definitely not off the cards either - I’d love to come back for my PhD.”