By Nicole Hellessey
Nicole Hellessey (right) and Swan Li San Sow (left) on the back deck of the RV Investigator during the P15South voyage May, 2016. Picture provided by Nicole Hellessey © Nicole Hellessey May 2016
I’ve made some terrible decisions in my life but having a child was not one of them. Somehow though this choice would go on to affect my career more than it should and in more ways than I dare to admit at times.
I moved out of home to Tasmania as a bright and bubbly 18 year old and I had the world at my feet. I knew I wanted to study marine science, having always had a passion and love of the sea, and going to university only solidified how much I wanted to conduct research and share my knowledge with others. In the final year of my Bachelor’s degree however, I fell unexpectedly pregnant but I didn’t let it stop me.
I took the opportunity to be a parent in both hands and ran with it even if it meant being a single parent. I graduated from my Bachelor’s whilst pregnant and spent 6 months working trying to figure out my plan for when this child would arrive. I still had no idea what I was going to do the day he was born.
Luckily, I had a support network that helped me move back in with my parents in Canberra for a year while I got the basics of parenting down and made some life decisions about what I’d do next. Should I go back to University to complete a Master’s degree like I had planned? Should I get a job and support myself until this baby was a little older before returning to formal education? I had lots of questions about my own future running through my head, let alone the questions about my son’s future too.
A fantastic friend helped me work up the courage to return to University (and Tasmania) in 2012 to begin my Master’s degree as a single parent. The University was extremely supportive and my Course Coordinator helped at every step of the way, from writing letters to Centrelink to allow me to access affordable childcare whilst studying, to granting extensions on assignments due to looking after a sick child. My Master’s supervisor was also brilliant, making sure meetings were held within childcare hours or Skyping after my son was in bed so that I didn’t have to sacrifice family time to study or work. I feel like I got this fantastic opportunity and these great people helping me because they too were women.
The Course Coordinator told me often of being a single parent during her PhD in the ‘80s and how she wanted to make it easier for anyone following that same path. My Master’s supervisor (whilst not a parent) understood that it meant I couldn’t always be available and that my timetable was a little different from most and was extremely accommodating in making it work for both of us. I never thought I would get the opportunity to study my Master’s, let alone get the chance to do a PhD afterwards but these fearless women helped me achieve that goal.
The idea of travelling as a part of my studies seemed a distant dream but standing in the middle of the Southern Ocean in May 2016 I had an epiphany. I had turned my life around from something I was reluctant to tell people about, a single unemployed parent living with her parents, into something I was proud to share. When I return South this December it will be as a participant in Homeward Bound; an all-female expedition to Antarctica to raise awareness for a need of women as leaders in science and in environmental policy. I’m extremely humbled thinking of the company I’ll be on but maybe having a unique view of women in science as a single parent might bring something to the table that might otherwise be missing.
I managed to turn my biggest weakness into my biggest strength. Who could have guessed all those years ago that being a single parent in science would take me so far or on such a unique track? I can’t wait to see where it takes me next.
For more information on Homeward Bound go to homewardboundprojects.com.au
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