Janaya Pender, wearing a red dress, blue and red graduation gown, and blue cap, smiles at the camera. There are people gathered in the background. Photo: Mark Newsham

First-in-family graduate passionate about improving Indigenous Public Health

First-in-family graduate passionate about improving Indigenous Public Health

Janaya Pender credits UOW and Woolyungah’s support as integral to her success

Janaya Pender is a proud Yuin and Bundjalung woman and is the first in her family to graduate from university, having completed a Bachelor of Public Health (Social Epidemiology). 

Janaya’s six-year University of Wollongong (UOW) journey came to a triumphant end on Wednesday 1 November, as she celebrated her graduation with her fiancé, young daughter, father, and close family members. 

The path to this milestone moment at the Faculty of the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities graduation ceremony was anything but smooth.  

Working in a mid-tier accounting firm in Sydney initially seemed like the perfect fit for Janaya, having always been drawn to numbers and data, but something was missing – she found the work was not fulfilling.  

“Going to work every day, I would see people that were disadvantaged, I would see homeless people and people in refuge centres, and yet I was working at a firm helping people that were already rich, make more money,” Janaya said. 

At 29 years old, Janaya took a leap of faith leaving her accounting career to follow her passion for Indigenous health, not knowing where it would lead.  

“I quit my job. I had only just applied for university in the Indigenous Health space, I hadn’t even been accepted yet, but I knew I didn’t want to do that anymore.”  

Being accepted and starting at UOW was a huge adjustment.  

In her first three months of university, Janaya went through a divorce, had to sell her unit, and move house, all while getting acquainted with her new world of tertiary study. 

I went through depression and anxiety; my first semester of university was terrible. I failed all my subjects. 

“I was going to give up. I was going to quit. Until I got some great support from my teachers, who I am still really close with now. They helped me and they got me through it.” 

Janaya was diagnosed with ADHD in her second year which brought new challenges as she navigated through her diagnosis and medications. However, she was able to thrive with the newfound support.  

“Once teachers knew about my diagnosis, they pointed me in the right direction to get counselling and to seek support through the disabilities services at the University.  

“Letting my guard down and saying I needed help, and realising people are there and they want to help you, that was the best thing. It made all the difference. I saw my grades go up.” 

Her advice to other students is not to suffer in silence. 

“The information is there, and people will always help you if you just ask. You have to reach out to people. If they don’t know they cannot help you.” 

After a tumultuous start to university, Janaya insists it was the community at Woolyungah Indigenous Centre (WIC) that gave her the drive to keep going and embrace opportunities. 

“Woolyungah was the thing that got me through university. It was my hub. You have your own community and support system. 

“I could just go there and have a yarn with the staff and other students without the noise and stress of uni. Especially being mature age, having older people that you could talk to and benefit from the cultural support made all the difference. 

“I would not have finished my degree if it were not for Woolyungah. It just made me feel a bit more included and safer in what can be an intimidating space for Indigenous peoples.” 

Janaya benefited from the Indigenous Tailored Academic Program (ITAP), a free face-to-face academic support program providing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students with tutors to enhance their academic outcomes. 

“After taking up ITAP tutoring, I saw such a big improvement in my grades and engagement in classes. It was great having someone there who could understand and explain the subject content to me, answer questions and keep me focused and accountable. 

“My tutors took the time to get to know me, so they could find the best fit for me. They were really understanding of the way I worked and developed study techniques that would help me specifically.” 

Through WIC, Janaya also had an opportunity to participate in the Career Trackers program, completing two paid internships with leading food distribution company, Goodman Fielder. 

As Janaya’s succeeded in her studies, her passion for Indigenous healthcare grew, focusing on Indigenous self-determination in a public health context. 

Studying social epidemiology, a critical area of public health investigating the patterns, causes and determinants of disease, was a “lightbulb moment” for Janaya. 

“Epidemiology was great as it was all about statistics, numbers and data, which is my strength, and it was health related, which is what I have always been passionate about.” 

As the global pandemic struck, everything Janaya was studying suddenly became less theoretical. 

“For all my assignments, COVID was actually really helpful - you could see it in practice. It made studying epidemiology more relatable to others, too.” 

While working remotely proved to be a difficult adjustment, without the on-campus support, Janaya lent into a new challenge and took up a position with the student-run Illawarra Public Health Society as the treasurer. 

“I was hesitant at the beginning to take on another role whilst trying to study, however, it ended up being great. It gave me a group of friends from different degrees who were also passionate about health, especially in the COVID year and allowed me to use my transferrable skills from my previous career in accounting.” 

The rapport and professional relationships Janaya fostered with the staff from the School of Health and Society, particularly Dr Summer May Finlay, Dr Bushra Khan, Associate Professor Catherine MacPhail, Dr Joanna Russell, and Dr Helen Simpson, opened many doors and opportunities. 

“Both Summer and Helen have been phenomenal. From understanding and supporting me from a cultural perspective, to then understanding me on a personal level to know what my strengths and weaknesses are. I was offered opportunities but never pushed in a specific direction.” 

In 2021, Janaya took a year off to become a first-time mum. The return to study with a newborn was yet another challenge that Janaya took in her stride. 

Janaya Pender, wearing a blue graduation gown and blue cap, celebrating with family at her graduation ceremony. Photo: Mark Newsham Janaya Pender celebrating with her fiancé, daughter and father at her graduation ceremony. Photo: Mark Newsham.

In her last semester, Janaya secured an intern placement with the World Federation of Public Health Associations in the Indigenous Working Group, working alongside Dr Finlay, to help build a strategic plan to promote and advocate for Indigenous peoples on public health matters globally.  

I got a fantastic opportunity to gain practical experience and work with such esteemed people; Indigenous colleagues from around the world. Now one year later, I am still working with them as the current secretary of the working group.” 

Janaya admits the transition from intern to colleague has been a “pinch me” moment.  

“It is wonderful to be surrounded by colleagues of such a high calibre this early in my career. I am still realising that I can offer a little bit more, that I can be a valued contributor in my own way.” 

Since completing her studies, Janaya has spent 2023 working in the School of Health and Society as an Associate Research Fellow, alongside her mentor Dr Finlay, working on the Commissioning of Indigenous Health and Wellbeing Evaluations project, funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council. 

The project aims to improve the commissioning practices of government and non-government agencies for Indigenous health and wellbeing program evaluations in Australia. 

Janaya is interested in exploring a career in research, having already been included in a published paper and presented at a national Indigenous health conference. 

After years of many highs and lows, Janaya’s graduation day was a milestone in another way. Defying doctor’s predictions, Janaya’s father was able to attend graduation in a feat that looked impossible 12 months ago.  

“Unfortunately, my dad suffered a stroke this time last year, right when I was supposed to be finishing off my subject.  

“The doctors didn’t think Dad was going to make it through that week. He was in ICU for a while and during that time we found out he also had a lot of other health issues including cancer, kidney disease, heart disease and dementia. But the fact that he has made it a year on and is able to attend graduation is so special, not just for me but for the rest of our family.  

“It also reiterates to me the importance of my studies and the career path I’m taking in Indigenous health.”  

Standing alongside her father, Janaya’s fiancé, a UOW graduate, and their young daughter beamed as they looked ahead to an exciting future.