Gemma with friends holding Aboriginal and Torres strait flags

From Sydney to Columbia: graduate awarded prestigious Fulbright scholarship

8 May 2020
Gemma Tierney's journey to Columbia University started during high school, when she set her sights on studying physiotherapy. Now, she's headed to the US to further a career in healthcare, with a focus on Indigenous health.

It was Gemma Tierney’s father who helped make her dream of studying physiotherapy a reality – he ignored her doubts and listed it as her number one preference for university in her final year of high school.

“I didn’t think physiotherapy was for me,” Gemma said. “I thought I would never get the mark to get in – thankfully my dad sneakily changed the order of my preferences!”

She completed a Bachelor of Applied Science with the University of Sydney's Faculty of Medicine and Health in 2018 with a strong academic record, but didn’t immediately see postgraduate study as being an option.

“To be completely honest, studying a postgraduate degree was never on my radar.”

But when the Aurora Project, an Indigenous education organisation, spoke to her in her final year about being a part of their international study tour, Gemma applied and was thrilled to be accepted. It was this study tour that really made clear the possibility of postgraduate study overseas. 

“I initially thought I would never qualify to study overseas at one of the leading universities in the world, but the Aurora study tour made that seem all the more possible,” she added.

Gemma Tierney

Gemma with her father at the Fulbright scholarship award ceremony.

Becoming a Fulbright Scholar

As part of the study tour, Gemma met the team at Fulbright Australia, who introduced the Fulbright program to her. The Fulbright Program is a foreign exchange scholarship program between the United States and Australia aimed at increasing research collaboration and cultural understanding, and it seemed like a perfect fit.

“The values of Fulbright and the cultural exchange aspect of the program, as well as the academic prestige, made applying for Fulbright an easy choice,” said Gemma. 

She succeeded, and after being named as one of five University of Sydney graduates to be accepted as a Fulbright scholar, Gemma will complete her Masters of Public Health with a certificate in Maternal, Child and Youth Health at Columbia University. She choose to study in New York after also being at accepted Brown, Boston and North Carolina University.

“The Fulbright scholarship has allowed me to study the course that will help me in achieving my career goals at a leading university,” said Gemma. “Fulbright is the number one scholarship for university exchange in the US, and I truly believe that having Fulbright scholarship helped tremendously in my acceptance at Columbia.”

A community of support

Gemma credits the University of Sydney and the many Indigenous programs on offer here with giving her the drive to complete her degree, and an honours year. In particular, she named Yooroang Garang Indigenous Student Support Unit as being an integral part of her success.

“Yooroang Garang was my safe place at university,” said Gemma. 

Her experience with programs like Yooroang Garang and the Gadigal program saw her become a mentor herself, as part of the MOBS and ITAS programs, where she mentored first year Yooroang Garang students. 

“These programs, and studying at Sydney made my honours year, my placement and choosing to go on the Study Tour easy. Through these programs, I have made lifelong friendships and I can genuinely say I would not be where I am today without them,” said Gemma. 

Looking to the future

While finishing her Masters is still a while off, Gemma is looking ahead. She hopes her studies will help her have an impact on Indigenous healthcare in Australia.

“I plan to return to Australia to work towards improving the health disparities faced by Indigenous mothers and children across Australia,” she said. 

Gemma wants other Indigenous students to think about overseas programs like Fulbright that allow students to achieve their career goals and gain once-in-a-lifetime experiences. When it comes to applying, she says doing your research is the most important thing. 

“Take the time to really understand the values and mission of the Fulbright Commission. For Indigenous students, reach out to previous Indigenous Fulbright scholars, such as myself, to get tips on how to apply. There are so many people who want to help you succeed.”

As for the benefits of becoming a Fulbright scholar; “you become part of a large network of academics across the world and across many fields of expertise. I have met so many brilliant people who are working towards changing the world in their field.” 

She says her time at the University of Sydney, and the Indigenous programs she was involved in, gave her the confidence to apply for the Fulbright scheme. 

“Being surrounded by amazing Indigenous people allowed me to see myself as a valuable candidate. Surround yourself with like-minded people and believe in yourself, because if you don’t give it go you’ll never know!”

Students Gemma Tierney and Kasarina Mann share their experiences of participating in the Aurora Education Foundation program, a national not for profit that focuses on supporting Indigenous education.

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