Meet Social Work PhD Student and Senior Research Fellow in Aboriginal Health, Shawana Andrews

Specialising in Indigenous health and wellbeing, Shawana shares her clinical, teaching and research experience as she nears the end of her PhD.

Shawana Andrews is a Palawa woman of the Trawlwoolway clan, Tasmania. With a rich and varied career that spans 21 years, her expertise in Social Work, Indigenous leadership and public health has developed through her work as a clinical social worker in hospitals, an influencer of policy, and as an academic lecturer and adviser in higher education. In 2012, she joined the Melbourne School of Health Sciences as a Senior Lecturer in Aboriginal Health. In 2019, she moved to the Department of Social Work as Senior Research Fellow and also took up the position of Associate Director of the Melbourne Poche Centre for Indigenous Health.

Photograph of Shawana Andrews

Her career began with a Bachelor of Arts degree, which continued on to a Master of Social Work. As the sole Indigenous student on the course, she brought a new perspective. When she began lecturing, 15 years later, she reflected upon this experience to her students as part of her teaching.

“After a 15-year clinical career, coming back to teach Social Work was like a full circle,” Andrews explained. “I used my experience as a student and worked to reconcile my knowledge on how to engage with Aboriginal people and communities in the context of Social Work.”

Andrew’s interest in undertaking a PhD arose from many years working in the hospital system with families dealing with family violence in the context of their children’s ill health. The catalyst that initiated her PhD journey was an invitation to lead a stream focusing on Aboriginal fathers in the ARC “Fathering Challenges” Linkage Project. “This inspired me to focus my PhD on Aboriginal mothers in this important space and find ways to engage with them in a culturally and supportive way,” she elaborated. “Since a lot of work in the Aboriginal community has been about revitalising the cultural practice of possum skin cloaking, I decided to use this practice as a way to connect and engage with the participants.” Shawana’s PhD was titled Cloaked in Strength: An exploration of Aboriginal mothers’ experiences of family violence and the role of cultural practice as a tool of engagement, resilience and resistance.

Photograph of hands sewing possum skin cloak

Generally, possum skin cloaking programs serve to engage Aboriginal women in culturally-centred support groups and yarning sessions. These programs foster new knowledge, connection and cultural identity. They usually only create one cloak, which usually remains in the organisation. An important aspect in Andrews’ study was enabling all participants to create an individual possum skin cloak, which they would be able to keep upon completion.

“Many women in the study felt they have lost their cultural identity or do not have much experience with cultural practices,” Andrews shared. “Engaging in this practice and creating their own cloak helped facilitate some of their healing and growth and served to strengthen their sense of identity.”

The PhD project involved engaging local Aboriginal Elder, Dr Vicki Couzens, Gunditjmara Keerray Woorroong Woman and Senior Knowledge Custodian for Possum Cloak Story, who has been instrumental in artistic work for revitalising possum skin cloaking. After individual interviews, and under the guidance of Dr Couzens, the women of the study participated in a three-day workshop in which they were taught the ancient cultural practice of possum skin cloak making. Throughout the following years, Andrews held numerous follow-up sessions with the women, so they could continue working on their cloaks together and participate in the analysis of the research data.

“This allowed me to discuss my findings and present the data in a way that was comfortable for them,” Andrews explained. “It also created a collective and relational conversation among the participants. While each mother had their own experience, by connecting with one another in the workshops, they were also able to foster a sense of community.”

Photograph of painting a possum skin cloak

Andrews’ supervisors Professor Cathy Humphreys and Associate Professor Bridget Hamilton are also her colleagues. This resulted in the unique experience of balancing a supervisor-student relationship with that of colleagues. In addition, Andrews and her supervision team had to navigate the complexities of Aboriginal ownership and control in Aboriginal research. “My supervisors were fantastic in all respects,” she said. “We decided early on to be frank and clearly crafted the differentiation between the two relationships. Their acknowledgment and willingness to learn from me, as I learned from them, also showed their enthusiasm to engage in Aboriginal methodologies and to understand the intricacies of non-Indigenous people engaging in Indigenous research.”

Having recently submitted her PhD, Andrews plans to continue undertaking research projects. She shared: “My youngest child was three when I enrolled, and she is now eight years old. It’s incredible to think that she only knows me in the context of my PhD. This has been a long journey, but this is my commitment to working with the Aboriginal community and grappling with these issues”

Photograph of child wearing possum skin cloak

After submitting her PhD, Andrews will take part in a research project funded by a grant from the Oak Foundation, exploring psychological violence. She will join this project in her position as CI on the Safer Families CRE with Professor Kelsey Hegarty, Professor Stephanie Brown and Professor Cathy Humphreys. This project will centre on Aboriginal women and the role of shame and access to health services and will involve interviewing Aboriginal women and health professionals in the context of family violence.

On the back of her research, Andrews encourages prospective Aboriginal students to join the Indigenous PhD Familiarisation Program. Students can use this program to ask questions and expand their networks with the faculty and school. Find out more about this program and how to get involved in Indigenous Health at the University of Melbourne here.