By Dr Giselle Roberts
Amanda Kenny’s story is a classic case of hard work meets opportunity. First-in-family to go to university, she was a nurse, midwife and a “single mum with four young children” before setting her sights on tertiary education. Four degrees later, Kenny landed her first academic job and commenced her PhD. Today she is the inaugural Violet Vines Marshman Chair of Rural Health and Director of the Violet Vines Marshman Centre for Rural Health Research.
Based at La Trobe’s Bendigo campus, Professor Kenny is an expert on models of rural health service delivery and workforce development, Editor-in-Chief of leading international academic journal Nurse Education Today. There’s very little she hasn’t accomplished. She is determined and committed to her core, with a matching passion for regional universities and regional education.
Kenny and I sat down to talk about her incredible life story, her steadfast belief in all things regional, and her faith in career-maps and good mentors.
“A woman’s profession”
GISELLE ROBERTS: Amanda, I am always interested in the journey just as much as the destination. How did you end up specialising in regional health?
AMANDA KENNY: I grew up in a small country town in Victoria’s western district and often spent my school holidays in Bendigo with my grandparents. My forebears have been here since the gold mining days and my grandfather worked at the ordnance factory. When I finished secondary school, I wanted to go to university to study law. My father said no. There was a strong sense that a woman should become either a nurse or a teacher. I was really upset and broached the subject with my grandfather. He was salt-of-the-earth working class and said, “I agree with your father. You should become a nurse because that’s what women do.” He took me to meet the Director of Nursing at Bendigo Hospital and I was accepted into the training program.
GR: So, initially, your career choices were quite limited.
AK: Yes. I enjoyed nursing, but always felt like there was something missing. Then I found myself as a single mum with four young children, working part-time and struggling to put food on the table. I realised I had two choices, either rely on government support or get myself out of poverty and do something. So I bought a second-hand Mac and enrolled in a Bachelor of Nursing. Suddenly something was turned on in my brain. I had intellectual stimulation, and I loved it. I completed my degree, followed by a Postgraduate Diploma in Midwifery, a master’s degree and then a PhD on the health workforce in regional areas.
The academic ladder
GR: OK, so at this stage you have successfully combined your nursing career with your passion for research. How did you land your first academic job?
AK: I started off working as a laboratory technician. I was responsible for setting up the nursing laboratories and managing the simulation equipment. Then a Level B position came up, combining the technical role with some teaching. I got it, along with an offer from Professor Stephen Duckett to work on a project evaluating emergency and outpatient services in rural hospitals.
GR: Suddenly things started to turn around.
AK: It really snowballed from there. I became course coordinator, senior lecturer, associate professor and head of school. I was promoted to professor in 2014. The administrative responsibilities have been significant, but I have always maintained my commitment to research. New academics, particularly women, often get caught up with teaching and find they have no time for research. To be a great educator and a great motivator of students, I believe you need a great research profile as well.
GR: Inspiring students essentially means you have to be inspired yourself.
AK: Exactly. I have a thirst for knowledge and real excitement about working in academia, and I try to pass that on to students. Rural and regional health research has been a natural fit for me. We often become interested in issues we have experienced in our own lives. I have an understanding of farmer suicide, youth drug problems, and the life choices people sometimes make as a result of poverty and desperation. I’m incredibly privileged to have the opportunity to create change for people through my work.
GR: It must be very fulfilling to see your professional achievements culminate in your appointment as Violet Vines Marshman Chair of Rural Health and Director of the Violet Vines Marshman Centre for Rural Health Research.
AK: It is an incredible honour. Violet Vines Marshman was a nurse. She was passionate about rural health, with a particular focus on the vulnerable or disadvantaged. It’s humbling to be able to contribute to her vision, to be able to undertake transformative research in the rural and regional space that helps people in tangible ways.
GR: You have had a very impressive career trajectory. What are your top career tips?
AK: You can’t be successful on your own. You need people around you, you need great collaborators and great mentors. Emeritus Professor Stephen Duckett and Emeritus Professor Rhonda Nay have been great mentors for me and I have relied on their advice through every stage of my career. What I learned from them is that my core responsibilities as an academic are to develop strong community and professional connections, engage in quality teaching and supervision, bring in grant income and publish high quality papers. I try to convey that to women academics now. There is so much to do. We need to plan our careers and focus on what’s important.
GR: On core responsibilities, strategic thinking and strong connections.
AK: Yes, and everything comes from making those connections. As an educator, an academic, and a researcher, I rely on relationship building. It creates opportunities, opens doors, and allows us to contribute to this rich academic culture in meaningful ways.