The next generation of social workers are swapping city lecture halls for the country to learn what life is really like in rural Queensland and giving a voice to locals on the big issues affecting them.

Key points:

  • Social work students are stepping out of Brisbane classrooms to research in rural Queensland
  • Course supervisors say the program develops young social workers while helping remote communities
  • The local Chamber of Commerce says findings will help them lobby for government funding 

A new university program is changing the way city-based social workers assist people from the bush by having budding practitioners complete a research report in the North Burnett.

Third year Queensland University of Technology student Jane Rienecker said she threw her rule book out the window when she started investigating rural aged care in Biggenden.

“I was a bit of a city girl in that I had all my preconceptions about what older people would be like here and I thought I knew what the solution to the aging population was,” Ms Rienecker said.

“But I have learnt that the population is so much more diverse, and they have so much more capacity than I thought.

Young woman in green shirt smiling in front of a piano

Ms Rienecker is required to complete 1,000 hours of placement as a social work student with Biggenden her first practical experience.(ABC Wide Bay: Lucy Loram)

The program, Opportunities Biggenden, began as a pilot project for students to research major social issues affecting rural lives.

Admas Tewodros said she gained firsthand experience into the contentious issue of water security.

“I knew there is a lot going on with water because it is a hot commodity, but to learn about it as an industry with its own vocabulary and a lot of politics was really interesting,” Ms Tewodros said.

A profile photo of a young woman.

Ms Tewodros says meeting and chatting with locals is essential to working in community development. (ABC Wide Bay: Lucy Loram)

Ms Tewodros said she was embraced by the Biggenden community during her investigations.

“I found community members have a broad scope of knowledge. I guess the people I interact with in the city have their one special focus,” she said.

A ‘good news COVID story’

Course supervisor Niki Edwards said the idea began when students in Brisbane lost placements during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The academics in social work at QUT started thinking creatively about what options will be available,” Ms Edwards said.

“This is kind of a good news COVID story, if you like.

“The students were billeted, there were barbecues hosted, there were lagoon picnics, and that is as important to understanding a rural community as it is doing research. It’s like soaking up the atmosphere.”

Women in yellow short and thick black lense glasses smiles at the camera

Niki Edwards says Biggenden locals have appreciated having the students spend time in the community to listen to their concerns. (ABC Wide Bay: Lucy Loram)

Ms Edwards said the placement also benefited locals while developing the students.

“They did interviews where they fundamentally reached out to locals to ask ‘why are you in Biggenden? What keeps you here? What do you want for the future?’ And the girls were shocked at the welcome from the community,” she said.

Passing the baton

Kristyn Reid, who looked into disability and infrastructure in Biggenden, said all emerging practitioners should spend time in the bush.

“This placement is probably the highlight of my entire degree,” Ms Reid said.

“The experiences that I’ve had here, you can’t pay for that type of knowledge.

“You really see the differences. People aren’t aware of what it means to live rural.”

Wman with black short and long black hair smiling chairs behind her

Krystin Reid hopes to continue working in remote and regional Queensland after finishing her degree. (ABC Wide Bay: Lucy Loram)

The vice president of the Biggenden Chamber of Commerce, Glen Martin, worked closely with the students during their placement and said their research will better represent the community. 

“[Research] is something that chambers don’t get given, so we will be able to use their research to lobby whoever we need to.”

Ms Edwards said the course had only scratched the surface of rural-based social work.

“You can’t create miracles in terms of doing research for six months,” she said.

“It will be like a baton race, where this group might pass the baton to the next group that may come.”

A young girl takes a selfie with an older woman across the table they are sharing biccies and tea

The students were billeted with Biggenden locals to experience life in the North Burnett.(Supplied: Jane Rienecker)

Posted , updated 

The next generation of social workers step out of the city to spend a bit of time out bush
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