The library of a university campus isn’t the most ideal place to sing happy birthday, but it was the place Amily’s friends knew they could find her.
"It was the week before exams. My friends bought me a cake, we sang happy birthday, yarned for a little and then got straight back to study," Amily says.
It’s an interaction that typifies 20 year old Amily Phineasa. She is a dedicated, driven and community-minded woman. Born in Cairns, a town crisscrossed by rivers and overlooked by mountains, she grew up with a large and supportive family network. Amily’s family ties are connected to the Torres Strait and Bamaga, where she spent time as a child with her Akas, or grandmas and elders. Here, Amily listened to stories about the struggles and sacrifices of her predecessors. This ignited a fire within Amily to do more for her people and do more with her life. To be more, as a way of honouring their legacy.
Caring for loved ones is an integral part of Amily’s family life. “Looking after your elders has been ingrained in me since I was young – having respect for them and giving back in that aspect,” Amily says.
From a young age, Amily knew her career path would be orientated towards giving back to her community.
“I always wanted to help people,” she says. “When I was in grade eight, I said OK, I want to do medicine, but I don't know really how to do it.”
Amily always planned on attending university. She was encouraged to do so from a young age. Conversations around university were woven into her family discussions throughout primary and secondary school. Then, during high school, Amily attended JCU Winter Camp - a camp where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander school students experience university life.
The Cape York Leaders Program (CYLP) Tertiary Scholarship presented an opportunity to make Amily’s educational aspirations a reality. CYLP Ambassador and JCU Medicine Student, Assan, mentored Amily and provided essential support throughout her post-secondary journey.
I found within the Leaders Program, the ambassadors just helped me, and all the younger ones to open our minds to the potential of education.
“I found within the Leaders Program, the ambassadors just helped me, and all the younger ones to open our minds to the potential of education. I wasn't sure if I was capable, especially having no one else in my family go to uni or go beyond high school. And so having them as examples, it just really helped push me to realise my potential. I thought, if they can do it, I can do it,” Amily says.
With the help of Assan, Amily was accepted into a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery with James Cook University Townsville.
Starting university was an unnerving experience. Not only was she representing herself, but she was also representing her family and community.
“The first year of uni was daunting. I felt that I was taking that first step for my family and for everyone who I represent,” she says.
When I knew why I wanted to pursue medicine, everything else fell into place.
During her first year of study, COVID-19 sent the university into online learning. Without the in-person presence and support of her classmates and teachers, study became challenging.
“When COVID-19 happened and study went online, a lot of imposter syndrome and self-doubt crept in. And that affected my mental health. I didn’t want to disappoint my family and everyone that was supporting me on my journey. I didn’t want to let them down,” she says.
To preserve her mental health, Amily took a step back from her studies. During the brief hiatus, Amily reflected on her reasons for studying medicine. Drawing on support from Assan, she transformed the challenging interlude into a source of motivation.
“When I knew why, why I wanted to pursue medicine, everything else fell into place,” she says.
At the end of the day you might get money and prestige as a doctor. You might get a flash car. But at the core of it, you’re helping others. You dedicate yourself to improving the health and wellbeing of others. So I thought, it is hard work, but I do want to do this.
“Taking a break from uni just made me appreciate all the hard work, effort and passion that you have to have in med to serve other people. At the end of the day you might get money and prestige as a doctor. You might get a flash car. But at the core of it, you’re helping others. You dedicate yourself to improving the health and wellbeing of others. So I thought, it is hard work, but I do want to do this.”
Through Cape York Leaders Program, Amily receives fortnightly payments that reduce the financial stressors of higher education. So far, she has purchased textbooks, a stethoscope and a laptop to assist with studies. Without the financial pressures of tertiary education, Amily is able to focus on achieving her academic goals. As well as assisting financially, CYLP provides ongoing wrap-around support and mentoring through Student Support Officers.
Since returning to campus, Amily has had the opportunity to put her theoretical knowledge into practice.
“I did placement in the community here in Townsville, and I got to know the people and their health needs. There are lot of Indigenous patients coming through. I thought, hey, my aunties, my cousin, my uncles have the same sort of conditions and needs. And so sitting as a medical student, I was like, ‘one day I'm gonna be that doctor giving that service, providing the support back at home and out in remote communities’,” Amily says.
Amily’s long-term career goals are focused on giving back to her community through rural and remote medicine, and eventually her own practice.
The end goal is to open my own GP practice regionally and then give back permanently to the community that way.
“When I graduate, I want to become a Rural Generalist. Which is a GP trained in a broad skill set that can go out into communities where there’s not that many specialists and help with whatever the community needs. The end goal is to open my own GP practice regionally and then give back permanently to the community that way,” she says.
Amily is also involved in the CYLP give-back program, where she mentors young Leaders, just like Assan did for her and continues to do for her.
There is a strong spirit of give back and mentoring in CYLP. After one generation of Leaders graduate and succeed in their chosen fields, they then mentor and support the younger Leaders. This type of perpetual mentoring support has been unparalleled in other Indigenous Scholarship programs and has yielded solid outcomes.
“Through CYLP I have a blessing and an opportunity to fulfil my potential. I can help others and inspire others as I’ve been inspired and perpetuate the legacy of Black Excellence,” she says.
After our interview, Amily was headed back to campus. We’re sure you know where to find her.