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Empowering Indigenous communities

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Rachel Visser is a woman that can do it all. Not only does she work as a senior project officer at Perth’s Aboriginal Workforce Development Centre assisting the Aboriginal community with employment concerns, but she was also crowned Miss Naidoc Perth in 2012, and is currently completing a Bachelor of Social Work at Curtin University.

In person, she exudes a humble self-confidence and endearing nature, which she says comes from her proud Aboriginal culture, supportive family and love of working with people.

Can you tell me a bit about your background?

I have always lived in Perth. We moved in between the Balga and Lockridge area, north side of the river. I went to school there and finished school at Lockridge high, year 12.

After I did TEE in year 11 and 12, I thought I didn’t want to study again; it’s too stressful, and so I got into a traineeship with the department of training in the apprenticeship section for about five years. I was able to work my way up to a supervision leader role and from there I thought I’d always wanted to work more independently and I’ve always wanted to help the Aboriginal community and my family, who are Aboriginal as well.

When a job came up for an Aboriginal support officer I thought I might as well put my hat in the ring and see how it goes, and I got the position! I work with a lot of young people who are job seekers, encouraging and helping them with those skills, finding work and linking them with employment. I really like that side of it.

About six months into it my director asked me if I had thought of further study. I always had uni in the back of my mind. I decided to choose between social work and psychology [courses], and ended up choosing social work just based on the units. I started that in 2012, just part-time while I was working full-time and I love it. I’ve learnt so much.

I feel like I think more outside of the box and I’m more open-minded. It builds my confidence as well because in a lot of the tutorials they really encourage you to express your opinion and value other peoples’ opinions, and that they might be different to yours. But it was really good to be encouraged to share my opinion, that’s one of my favourite things to learn at uni. Next year I’m doing full-time uni and part-time work.

What is the most rewarding thing about your job?

Confidence and being encouraged in yourself and your skills is a big thing, I mean that’s how we’re successful in life. So being able to instil confidence in other people is amazing, and these job seekers that come in they can be a bit down or young people, and don’t really know where to start. Being able to help them and support them is really rewarding. And when they actually get a job or get into some kind of training that they’re really interested in, that’s really rewarding too.

How have the skills you’ve learnt from your job and study helped you with other aspects in your life?

Working with people and realising that that is actually a skill. You think it’s just normal to be able to talk to people and make them feel comfortable and encourage them but you realise that that’s a skill. Uni is confidence building.

If you could give one piece of advice to a group of people what would it be?

There’s so much, so many things you could say. I think one of the biggest things I’ve learned over the last few years is the power we have to choose what we think, and how we feel about others and ourselves. So take time to learn about how our minds work and the power of positive thinking. Choosing to look at the positive in life, in you and in others.

How do you think your Aboriginal culture has helped shape the person you are today?

I think the resilience from my grandparents and my mum, and what they went through, has naturally passed down to me. My mum, no matter what we went through, she would always say everything will work out and you have to keep positive. I grew up with a really close family; they were really loving, That security has made me feel quite confident.

Can you recall a time when you felt like you had a significant impact on someone in your job?

There was this one girl in her late 20s. She had worked at Woolworths for nine years outside of school and needed a change. We talked about what she liked doing and what her interests were and it came up that she liked working with kids, so I said ‘what about starting as an education assistant and thinking about studying and working your way up?’ That was a couple of years ago.

During that time she got a job as an Aboriginal education officer in a school and then she started her Certificate III and Certificate IV in Education Support, and now she’s just enrolled in uni to do teaching. I love that because I’ve seen her grow and gain confidence over the years.

Are there aspects of your work that are quite challenging?

I think when you work with people we can all be a bit challenging. Sometimes people come in who are long-term unemployed or have had a very traumatic event in their lives affect their ability to have a successful career or study. So just supporting people with that can be quite challenging, and saying the right thing and referring them to the right people.

What advice would you give to Aboriginal students who are about to study at Curtin?

You can do it. Be confident in your ability because anybody can do uni and surround yourselves with the right people to support you, whether that be friends, family or a tutor to help you get through it. And also keep your goal in sight, because even though uni is awesome and fun, it’s also challenging and there are times when you just have to persevere.

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