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(Re)searching for a better future: Dr Liz Allen

Ashleigh Went

For many of us, a high school and even a tertiary education isn’t just accessible, but encouraged and in some cases expected.

When we think about barriers to education – particularly for women – it’s often third world countries that come to mind – but it’s an issue that’s far closer to home than we’d like to think.

For Liz Allen, the pathway to education was far from easy. As a young woman, she faced barriers at every turn. Forced to leave school in year seven, Liz found herself homeless and gave birth to her first child at the tender age of 17.

Now a PhD Graduate and mother of four, Liz hopes her story helps us to understand the challenges that face the underprivileged. Using her education and experience in her role as a Researcher, she works to inform policy in hopes that others won’t have to face the same challenges.

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Dr Liz Allen

“I experienced quite exceptional adverse circumstances as a young person, where I faced many barriers to completing schooling,” says Liz.

“After the birth of my eldest daughter, I realised that I hadn’t finished my education, and that my long held desire to achieve education needed to be met”.

Liz enrolled herself at Mt Druitt TAFE where she initially expected to only complete Year 10 but ended up attaining her Year 12 qualifications as well.

“It made me realise that perhaps I could go a little bit further” explains Liz. “I enrolled in a Bachelor’s degree at Macquarie University to study population studies and I didn’t do terribly well – that’s probably because I was nursing children, working and trying to survive.”

Beyond grades, the degree instilled in Liz a desire to learn more and to translate her experience in a way that others could understand.

Liz moved to Canberra and began a Masters of Social Research at the Australian National University where she found great success in her studies.

“It was at that moment that I’d realised I’d found my place in the world: I was a Researcher.”

“This degree was phenomenally powerful. It gave me the skills to approach a problem or approach a research topic in a rigorous and methodological way that I could then use to tell my story and the story of inequality.”

Liz received not only support in her studies and her role as a Researcher on campus, but also support from informal mentors.

“By the time I finished my PhD I had four daughters, and having strong women – women with children on faculty that were able to guide me through that experience and made me realise that I wasn’t alone as a woman with children in education, that I was just as entitled to education as anyone else – that was phenomenally empowering.”

Liz says that studying as a mother hasn’t been easy, but that the support of her partner and family has been immensely valuable.

“I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I don’t think I would have appreciated my education as much if I had not had my children. They were incredible motivators.”

“I wanted to prove to them as much as to myself that you can be who you want to be. If you’ve got a desire for something, and there are limits in your way, you find a way around them. ANU certainly helped me find the way around them. We didn’t just do that: we bulldozed them.”

Recounting the day she was awarded her PhD is an emotional experience for Liz.

“I never thought I could make my children proud. That day, I felt like I’d conquered the world. And not only had I conquered the world, but I had my children and my family with me – I could stand up on that stage and they could see that hard work pays off, that it’s worth it.”

“I never thought I’d get to the point of being awarded a PhD. That day was extraordinary – like the world had finally realised that I was good enough.”

Now, Liz spends her time teaching at the ANU and as a Researcher at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research.

“My role is very close to my heart. I work with a fantastic team of people where we look at things related to families, education and health of Indigenous young people and adults, and what can be done to better situations moving forward. It’s the creation of that evidence base and using that evidence to inform policy that’s so exciting.”

When asked what advice she’d offer to women pursuing education, Liz can’t emphasise the importance of breaking barriers and pursuing what you want in life, regardless of what society says.

“Your schooling and that end result of year 12 is not an indicator of who you are, your capability or your worthiness. Don’t let that number adversely limit your future.”

“As a result of my journey, I’m a better person, a better mother, a better partner, educator and researcher – so don’t think that school is the end of the world. The possibilities are endless, you’ve just got to find the right one.”

If you’re interested in exploring opportunities and course options at the ANU College of Arts & Social Sciences, visit cass.anu.edu.au/study-with-us

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Ashleigh Went

Ashleigh Went has a passion for all things health and wellness. She’s currently furthering her studies in nutrition, but also has a Bachelor of Communication and is a qualified fitness instructor with over five years experience working in a gym. Among other things, she’s a lover of great food, coffee and fashion. She can usually be found shopping for activewear, in the gym or updating her Instagram @wentworthavenue More about the Author

  • Angie Carey

    Great story. Whether formal education or otherwise, everyone should be encourage to develop the skills for life long learning. I’ve been sneered at for trying to encourage young (primary school) kids to do a little reading and research – apparently it’s a “life-style choice” I am trying to impose!

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