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Students in Focus

"I'm just not clever enough to study" – PhD candidate Elizabeth Low has proven herself wrong, with five testamurs and counting

Every stage of Elizabeth Low’s academic journey has been met with challenges and disruption – including housing insecurity, health issues, and caring responsibilities for her mother, husband and both children. Resilience pushed her to keep trying.

It took four attempts for Elizabeth to obtain her first degree, but she now has five testamurs to her name and is undertaking a PhD at the University of Canberra.

After finishing high school, Elizabeth didn’t know what she wanted to study, but she did know that she wanted to be the first in her family to go to university.

She was accepted into the Canberra College of Advanced Education (CCAE, now the University of Canberra) to study a Bachelor of Medical Technology. Facing housing, financial, and health challenges, Elizabeth pulled out of the course with just four units remaining, to support herself by working full-time in the public service.

“Looking back, it was a mistake,” Elizabeth says. “I think if I’d had someone tell me to stop overthinking and just focus and get on with it, I probably would have finished.”

Her second attempt to complete a degree was in Tasmania, where she studied psychology and sociology while also working full-time, but her role at work was looking like becoming redundant and she returned to Canberra.

Still desperate to obtain a degree, Elizabeth tried UC again, this time studying business administration, but she found that working full-time and studying wasn’t going to work.

“Then I just gave up. I thought, ‘I’m just not clever enough to study, clearly I can’t do this’. I progressed well through the public service instead."

It was her husband’s completion of his Master of Business Administration (MBA) in the early 2000s that inspired her to have another go – she thought that if he had his MBA, she needed at least something! So, she opted for an online postgraduate certificate in business administration with the University of Newcastle.

Achieving outstanding marks in that course boosted her confidence, so Elizabeth articulated into an MBA. She didn’t realise that she had already earned the postgraduate certificate despite taking on her master’s, so when the university posted her the certificate, she mailed it back – twice.

“I had absolutely no idea it was mine to keep. I eventually got sick of sending it back, so I kept it,” she says.

The road to obtaining Elizabeth’s MBA was met with significant challenges in her personal life.

“In my last units I ended up caring for my mother, who was terminally ill with cancer at the time. But I told myself that if I didn’t complete this degree now, history would repeat itself and I’d never complete one. So, I managed to see my mother through to the end of her life and complete my MBA,” she says.

Life after university found Elizabeth less engaged with her job, which she eventually had to leave to care for one of her children full-time.

“Due to the nature of my daughter’s illness, my perspective on life changed,” she says.

“When I went back to work briefly, I saw things differently – the things people were worrying about at work were not really that important or upsetting, in the larger scheme of life.”

Becoming a full-time carer took its toll on Elizabeth, but also turned out to be a pivotal stage in her life.

“I found full-time caring really challenging, I was missing something for myself, but then I realised it gave me a chance to explore a new career,” she says.

“Being a carer is quite stressful, so I wanted to do something left of field that interested me, like naturopathy. A friend suggested I complete a Bachelor of Human Nutrition to build a strong foundation and give me some credibility if I was going to work in that field.”

Elizabeth successfully completed her bachelor’s at UC with excellent results, while caring for both her children who are on the spectrum, and later her husband who became unwell and developed a life-altering disability. She regularly brought her younger daughter to lectures and tutorials.

“Everyone was really fantastic and supportive, especially when things got tough with my caring responsibilities. I’m particularly grateful for my supervisors’ support – Dr Jane Kellett, Dr Rachel Bacon, and Dr Nenad Naumovski."

With her lecturers’ encouragement and support, Elizabeth completed her honours degree, focusing on the food habits of older people living independently in the community, then decided to complete her Master of Nutrition and Dietetics so she could become a qualified dietitian, before progressing to a PhD.

Elizabeth’s PhD research explores the effect of social isolation on diet quality for people aged 55 years and over living independently in the community, with the aim of contributing to more effective and empowered ageing in place policy and support services. Aging in place refers to seniors continuing to live in the community with some level of independence, rather than moving into an aged care residence.

She is one of four PhD students in the Nutrition and Healthy Ageing Trajectories in Retirement Living (NutriHAT-RL) research team, led by Discipline Lead in Nutrition and Dietetics Dr Jane Kellett, Assistant Professor Dr Nathan D’Cunha, Associate Professor Dr Nenad Naumovski, and Associate Professor Dr Stephen Isbel.

The team is working to identify associations between nutrition and healthy ageing trajectories in a retirement village setting that impact the onset and development of chronic disease.

Elizabeth explains that a range of factors can impact diet quality – from physiological (such as difficulty swallowing and the deterioration of one’s senses), to financial strain, accessibility, cognitive decline and more, and these factors can combine with existing and emerging health conditions.

“Government policies and support packages are pushing for more people to age in place to reduce the strain on our aged care system. Diet quality is an important determinant of how well people can do that,” she says.

“I’m hoping my research will set benchmarks for further research in this space, especially around the role of social connectedness and food. I would really like to continue this research and make a difference.”

Elizabeth is also a sessional teacher at the University for nutrition units. After engaging some of UC’s services to support her caring responsibilities and personal circumstances, she’s become a strong advocate for her students to seek support if they are facing challenges or have additional responsibilities.

“From my personal experiences, I’m more aware of things students could be going through. Some students transition to university very easily, but there are students who are feeling very tentative about studying, especially if it’s their first experience. I try my best to help them and point students in the right direction for support, because they may not have that in their life.”

Words by Kailey Tonini, images by Tyler Cherry.

The University of Canberra offers a range of support services at our Bruce campus to give students every opportunity to achieve their study goals. This includes the Student Wellbeing and Support team’s UC Thrive program, disability services, financial support and more. Find out more about UC’s support services on our website.

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