Chatting with Larissa Siliézar, you immediately get a sense of just how privileged she feels she is to be a disability practitioner.
As the Manager of Student Equity and Wellbeing at James Cook University, Larissa’s role comprises the counselling, wellbeing, accessibility and chaplaincy services at the institution.
Prior to jumping into this role in 2014, Larissa spent eight years working in international student support, providing pastoral care to newly arrived and settling-in students. The equity space attracted her because of its diversity.
“When I originally moved to equity…I was doing things like gender equity, disability for staff and students, and a bit of policy and procedure development which was quite interesting. And it was just nice to be able to work with a wider cohort of students. We still had international students that would be working with the disability [office], but I just thought it was a nice opportunity for me to work with different cohorts of equity groups,” she said.
Another thing that appealed to Larissa was being able to support students from CALD backgrounds.
“I am one,” she said, “I have a refugee background myself, I arrived here as a refugee, so it was about having a broader reach.”
This background helps Larissa to empathise with the students that enter her office.
“My father has a hearing impairment so for me it was also around ensuring people with diversity of backgrounds can be at university and succeed and that they belong here,” she added.
Over her years in the role she has seen mental health take on greater prominence as an issue to be addressed. Larissa estimates that around a third of the students who register now with the JCU disability service do so because of mental health.
This has provided an opportunity to offer more holistic support, and create more connections with students. For example, at JCU psychologists work in conjunction with social workers, occupational therapists, rehabilitation counsellors and administration staff to put comprehensive supports in place to ensure students get the best outcomes.
“Students are managing a lot more – not just study, but pressure around finances, working and family commitments and all that kind of stuff means people can have quite complex lives at times but it’s great to see them fighting back and trying to make the best of what they can,” Larissa said.
There’s no doubt that this has been compounded by COVID-19.
While COVID has presented an opportunity in becoming more agile to respond to student needs, it has also been challenging to ensure that students retain their level of engagement with their studies and with the accessibility department. Larissa said there has been a corresponding drop in some students not coming to telehealth appointments. To counter that, the department has been trying to reach out to students via email, and as Covid case numbers drop they have begun opening up to more face-to-face engagements again.
She’s proud, she said, to work with and learn from an “amazing group of people” in disability services from diverse backgrounds and career specialisations. Stories of students’ success keep her going and ward off the bad days too. Larissa enjoys the challenges of making things more inclusive and making sure students feel like they belong in higher education. The desire to continually improve accessibility so that students can aim and aspire is one of her primary motivations.
“I find it very grounding and humbling that students are coming to us and trusting us with their stories – then you see them succeed and finish their studies and I think that’s one of the greatest rewards in this job for me!” Larissa said.
One thing that comes across in conversation with Larissa is her dedication to improving her knowledge of the sector. On that note, she’s looking forward to her first Pathways conference this year, which will, like so many of 2020’s events, be delivered virtually.
“Obviously budgets are a little tight sometimes so…I’m quite excited to be able to participate this year,” she explained, “As bad as COVIDhas been for many things this year, I think one of the things I’ve noticed is greater connection between some of the practitioners and the collaboration that can happen because we don’t have that distance and cost component [as a barrier] to being able to network and reach out.
“I think that is one of the things that we can hopefully take out of COVID as a positive, that as much as being virtual can be quite isolating, it also allows you to link in with people that you wouldn’t normally link with, because there’s no cost and it is quite easy. For disability and in the counselling space, I’m probably talking to colleagues in other universities a lot more than I did before Covid.”
And she’s learned a lot from colleagues in the sector, not just this year but over her time in support services. In fact, Larissa said she continues to learn from both veterans and fresh faces and is “in awe” of some of the knowledge that is shared. She added that it is important to listen to practitioners who are fresh out of university too, who may look at systems and processes with fresh eyes.
Her advice to new practitioners is to recognise that “this job can be hard”.
“Some days if you’re doing back to back appointments it can be really draining but it’s about enjoying the experience and the honour we have in working with students, and in people trusting us with their stories. I think people forget that when we get stressed and busy.
Larissa recommended taking a moment every now and then to enjoy the work, and to reach out for help from colleagues within your institution and elsewhere in higher education and disability. For leaders and managers, her advice based on the mentors she has admired, is to allow teams to take breaks and mental health days and to keep their door open for anyone who might need to chat.
Bigger picture, she’d like to see further funding to facilitate more opportunities for students with disability, and appreciates the changes currently happening in this space. Overall though, Larissa said, she has a grander vision.
“This notion of inclusive learning being the norm – in the future it would be nice if we didn’t even have to talk about having to make adjustments because everything is so inclusive that we’d be able to cater to students who needed that support.”
Outside of work, Larissa said she loves cooking – or at least, she said with a laugh, she loves eating her husband’s cooking. Walking the puppies and spending time with family helps her wind down – as well as “watching good Netflix, or sometimes not-so-good Netflix where you can switch your brain off a little bit!”