UQ: Not just a beautiful campus

There are many of things to consider when choosing a university. PhD student Natasha Taylor writes how UQ’s people and its embracing approach to diversity, rather than a sunny climate and sprawling green campus,  lured her to St Lucia and supported her once she arrived.

In 2012 I was finishing my honours degree at the Australian National University (ANU), when I received an e-mail inviting honours students around Australia to come to The University of Queensland. Being from the southern states – born in Sydney, schooled in Melbourne, studied in Canberra – I had a rather dim view of Queensland: to me it was racist, sexist, homophobic, and all manner of other descriptions that could be summarised in the word ‘backwards’. Nevertheless I accepted the offer and, with two close friends in tow, flew up to see UQ.

What I saw here was very different to what I expected: a gorgeous campus of brilliant sandstone, a diversity of staff and students to rival anywhere else I had been, and top-class research. We were made to feel welcome, given several talks and tours, and on the second day we were given appointments to talk to researchers we were interested in. To be honest, I remember very little but a good impression from these meetings, but one gesture stuck in my mind. When I went to see Dr Tamara Davis (at the time I was interested in astrophysics)there was not enough room for myself and a friend who was also interested in her research; without missing a beat, Tamara gave up her seat and sat on the floor. A more welcoming sign I cannot imagine.

UQ astrophysicist Dr Tamara Davis

While visiting UQ, I didn’t miss the chance to ask about demographics, and what I heard confirmed my observations - there was a large proportion of people of colour from many countries and religions, both as staff and students. Women were represented reasonably well in the staff, albeit not proportional to the general population, and when I inquired about sexism in the workplace I received an extremely positive and honest response.

For all these acts of good will, on my flight home I was still unsure that living in Queensland would be right for me: as a woman who loves women, I was still scared of Queensland’s poor reputation for homophobia. However, this was driven from my mind by the impending honours thesis. Following completion of my honours year I decided I needed time off, and so I took a gap year.

During that time I decided that I wanted to pursue a PhD, but in what? Luckily, I discovered a fascinating paper Excited state coherent dynamics in light-harvesting complexes from photosynthetic marine algae – talking about quantum mechanical effects inside living things! Fascinated, I did some more reading and, having now decided the topic of my PhD, I went in search of supervisors. In the end, two choices for prospective supervisors came to my attention: one at Melbourne University, another at UQ. If I had not been to UQ earlier, I no doubt would have disregarded the latter option.

Instead, I searched through the UQ website and found something important to me: UQ had an active queer collective who, when I contacted them, told me about their efforts to improve the life of queer (LGBTI+) students on campus, and how accepting the university is. They also explained that there was a safe space on campus that queer students could use to relax and be themselves without being challenged for being too ‘flagrant’ or subverting gender norms. With this information, I applied to UQ.

The UQ Union Queer Collective (UQUQC) turned out to be an incredibly welcoming and friendly space, and encouraged me to seek out the UQU Women’s Collective and Abilities Collective (UQUWC and UQUAC respectively). Far from the coddling that was described by other students, what I found was a space where my political beliefs were challenged and ideas were broadly discussed, all by people whose experience was shaped by their queerness, womanhood or (dis)ability, and always in a respectful manner.

Since I arrived, these safer spaces have been of immeasurable importance to me, providing emotional support, advice on dealing with administrative and social issues, and providing a place of refuge when I overworked myself and made myself too stressed to continue. At the end of my first year, my mental illnesses flared up dramatically, to the point I was unable to work for months, and I was afraid I would have to drop out. Thanks to a supportive supervisor (Dr Ivan Kassal), and the support given by the collectives, I managed to overcome these difficulties and enjoy myself, all the time with a feeling of community and respect.

As a white person, UQ made me comfortable. As a woman, UQ made me comfortable. As a mentally-ill lesbian, I was unsure whether I would be happy, but the safer spaces provided by the student union have made me so.

I am now a second-year PhD student, doing what I love: UQ was the right choice for me.

Last updated:
6 May 2016