But first, you have to help yourself. Many of us can relate to that familiar feeling of sitting in a classroom and wanting to ask a burning question but something holds us back.
“It had been so long since I had been in a formalised study environment. I was really self-conscious and insecure of approaching studies. Even at school, I was the kid who didn't want to put their hand up, I just didn't want to be seen or get an answer wrong.”
So what happens when bit-by-bit, we learn to chip away at that fear? We ask questions. We challenge the status quo. And we find the place where our individual way of thinking is supported.
“I never, ever thought I'd be here, and not just the achievement on paper, but being somewhere I enjoy so much, and feeling like I’ve really come into my own as a person. Feeling happy and comfortable is the greatest thing I’ve achieved.”
Talitha is currently studying a PhD in Molecular Biology after receiving first class Honours and a scholarship, yet she didn’t finish high school. A long-time animal lover, Talitha initially decided to pursue a career as a vet nurse.
“I randomly approached a vet clinic and asked if I could have some work experience, even as a kennel hand, just anything. So I worked split shifts cleaning kennels and in a retail shop. After a while, I asked outright if I could have a traineeship and they took me on as a trainee nurse. I worked really hard on the job and got all the coursework done. I loved being a vet nurse.”
However once the taste for knowledge and learning is acquired, it can be hard to ignore. So hard in fact, that Talitha changed careers.
A welcome discovery
“Working with animals is an amazing privilege and I’ll never forget that experience. But I just locked onto an idea of wanting to do even more. I decided that going to uni and studying environmental science was the way I could do that.
“I asked one of my lecturers how to get ahead in the conservation field because, you know, everyone wants to help the orangutans, so I wanted to find where I could make a difference.
“He suggested that I think about switching my major to Molecular Biology and Biological Sciences. So I did this hesitantly and thought I’d hate it.
“Once I started the molecular biology units, I discovered an unexpected love for biochemistry, molecular genetics and microbiology that completely took hold of me. I find that knowledge both changes your view on life and your perspective, but it also enriches things and it allows you to access things differently.
My bedtime reading became reading weird articles on different diseases and the metabolism of them. I just couldn't get enough. If only everybody understood how fun it is!”
Swapping self-doubt for a PhD
Studying isn't tedious or scary when you're enjoying it.
“Once I engaged in the work, that confidence just came like second nature.”
“Coming from something that I was really passionate about, both emotionally and ethically, which was working with animals, I was pretty set on this idea when I finished my undergrad that it's really important to me to work with something that's meaningful.”
When you find the place where you’re supported to think for yourself, you will have the space to create your own work and study practices, which has been one way Talitha has ensured she’s succeeded.
“I'm a visual person. I even have trouble putting concepts together if I haven't written them out in a flow chart first. It's something I recommend to people starting out with projects. It really helps to build that initial thought process and put it all in order. I find that my head gets too messy if I don't draw it out first, so I find it really useful.”
“We also have a lot of practical work here. There are some universities where you don't get into a lab until the end of second or even third year, so it's hard to apply what you're learning if you can't see it or use it.”
With the foundations in place, Talitha has built a network of support around her.
“Every time I find something new or exciting, I run around the hallway to my supervisor’s office and he always stops what he’s doing. Despite the fact that it may not actually be that exciting, he always makes the time to listen and tries to share my excitement. It’s such a supportive environment. I just find the people here are quite humble and down-to-earth and I think the information is more accessible because people are just happy to share.”
Asking questions has never been more important
Everyone’s path is different. We all learn and understand things differently but education should never be out of reach.
“I never thought I’d graduate from university with a Bachelor of Science, let alone a PhD. For a long time, I didn’t think uni was available to me, either because I hadn't finished school or because I didn't think I had the aptitude for it.”
“I just didn't believe in myself. I was terrified of failing, terrified of people, every aspect of it. I guess, in my head, people who went to university were a whole different type of person to who I thought I was.”
“So first year was a big journey of figuring out how to learn and how to ask questions I guess, shamelessly.”
“I actually failed two units in my first year and that was because I was terrified of asking questions. Ultimately, I was just afraid of seeming stupid, which is ridiculous, but I think it’s something people often feel. But if you don’t ask, there’s no way you can know.”
“Now I think it’s just crazy when I hear of a high school student that’s been told if they don’t do well or don’t have their ATAR, they’re going to fail. I was pretty much told that if you drop out, you’ll never have a job. It’s just not like that.”
“You can excel in your own area with your own qualities, without having to win every race. I really want them to know that they don't have to be the best to be their best. They can just be their best version of themselves.”It’s true. You don’t need to win every race or be the best at everything to find your place. Ask questions – both of the world around you but also of yourself. Chip away at any self-doubt and challenge the status quo. Who knows, maybe one day you’ll be the one who doesn’t just save the orangutans, but our environment too?