A journey of curiosity, discovery and creativity – The Story of Dr Tina Lathouras
In terms of an academic life, I consider myself a late bloomer. Growing up as the child of a Greek migrant in Brisbane in the 1960s, I wasn’t encouraged to study. I was in my mid 30s before I realised an educational pathway was possible. After 20 years of work in the social services sector supporting people with disabilities, a bachelor’s degree in social work seemed the obvious choice. I was keen to increase my knowledge about a range of social justice and human rights work.
Suffice to say, university changed my life. I revelled in the ideas and worldviews to which I was exposed. This was when I learned about community development as a form of collective critical practice to effect social change. I’ve become passionate about how to work with people to develop communities that are inclusive and empowering for all.
After a decade of community development practice (and much effort), I realised it wasn’t so easy to effect change! I was seeing community members having personally transformative experiences because of their involvement in community development processes. However, other barriers to their well being, most seemingly beyond their ability to control, continued to impact negatively on their lives. I wasn’t seeing the collective or socially transformative outcomes that some of the community development literature argues should result from practice. This was the subject of my doctoral research. I wanted clarity about which community development processes or methodologies could be useful to redress structural disadvantage. I theorized “Structural Community Development”, a form of practice that is making micro-macro connections and works towards effecting structural change. In projects I’ve undertaken since, I’ve sought to ‘theory-test’ these ideas both in the social services sector and at my own university.
I consider my greatest achievement has been to undertake action research within the Social Work program at my own university – my new community. We have seen a trend in the internationalisation of our student bodies, just like at many universities. Our international students were facing many barriers and a high percentage were failing courses. Others were leaving without degrees, returning home feeling demoralised. This was devastating for these students who had invested so much to come to Australia to pursue educational goals, and whose families had such high expectations and hopes for them.
This was the catalyst to see if some of my structural community development ideas could be used to better support our international students. These ideas prioritise dialogue and collective learning to mediate the interface between theory and practice. International and domestic students were participants, as well as educators who explored ways to improve learning outcomes for students from diverse backgrounds and learning styles. The two-year project was enormously successful for ensuring equity in learning. The research showed that by intentionally building community amongst students through a range of processes, it’s possible to increase student well-being, learning outcomes and retention. A national learning and teaching award recognised the innovative work, and the program has now become institutionalised within our School with financial support to employ a community development worker to continue this work.
In terms of my future goals, and as a ‘late’ early career researcher, that feels very open. I’m finding it satisfying to work in a university setting now, where I can be part of educating the next generation of social change activists. As an active member of several community development networks I keep grounded about contemporary issues and weave links between practice and research. I’ve had to get over my self-imposed ‘late bloomer’ label and conquer concerns that I’ve come to this researcher-educator vocation too late in life. Retirement seems a long way off, and in the years to come, my plan is to keep seeing my life and academic work as a journey of curiosity, discovery and creativity.
When I asked a successful colleague how to be an early career researcher, he said: “Tina, do what you love, and you will be ok”. That sounds like pretty good advice.