How a letter to Sydney led Professor Jackson Pulver to open doors for future students

A gift of opportunity for making sure all students have a chance

From nursing to academia, Indigenous health advocacy to philanthropy, Professor Lisa Jackson Pulver's legacy is one that she wants to live on - a gift in her Will to the University of Sydney is helping her to realise it.

Lisa Jackson Pulver is looking at the camera, smiling, with her arms crossed. She is wearing a black blazer, glasses and a red necklace.

Lisa Jackson Pulver, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services)

Helping others has remained at the heart of Professor Jackson Pulver’s motivations throughout her career. She is the first known Aboriginal person to receive a PhD in medicine at the University of Sydney, a respected educator in Indigenous health services, a Member of the Order of Australia, and the University of Sydney Deputy Vice-Chancellor  (Indigenous Strategy and Services). It’s an impressive legacy, that she wants to ensure benefits everyone, no matter their circumstances.

“This University came out of the dreams and practices of the people of this place way back in the 1850s; it didn't come out of any elite ideals – it was a pragmatic decision to have an academy of higher learning here in Sydney,” she says.

“And since that time, we've graduated so many people, but only a tiny number of people from Aboriginal backgrounds, people with different life and family experiences, and now it's our time.”

Professor Jackson Pulver’s own pathway to higher education was hard won, which is what prompted her decision to leave a gift in her Will to support future University of Sydney students.

Starting out as a nurse

After leaving home at 14, Professor Jackson Pulver lived hand to mouth, couch-surfing or sleeping in the back of people’s cars, before setting her sights on becoming a nurse.

“In those days, you could live in the nurses home attached to the hospital and they would give you uniforms, three meals a day and a room with a door that you could lock.”

“Seriously, that meant something to me,” she explains.

When she finished her nursing qualifications, she fell in with a crowd of creatives, performers and academics who had all been to university or to art school and showed her a different and appealing way of thinking. 

She explored new interests in screen printing and graphic art, but she continued to nurse. These “amazing people”, as she recalls, dared Professor Jackson Pulver to dream big. After 10 years of working as a registered nurse she penned a letter to the University of Sydney pitching for a place in the medical program.

Lisa Jackson Pulver standing with a friend wearing her nurse's uniform - the uniform is an older style blue uniform and features a large hat.

"I became a registered General Nurse through the Hospital based training system in the late 70’s." - Graduation day with my dear friend Dr Helen Walker, Professor Jackson Pulver.

She admits she was naive to the demands of university at the time but was motivated and confident her nursing experience would make her a great doctor. To her delight, she was accepted.

While the knowledge she gained through her medical studies would shape her future career, Professor Jackson Pulver soon realised she was ill-prepared for the realities of balancing a medical degree whilst maintaining her rent and living with some dignity.

“I had no financial resources; I had no idea what going to university was about,” she says. “I was the first in family to go to university. I had absolutely no opportunity to be able to rely on others to help me pay for rent or food.”

Shifting her focus to research, Professor Jackson Pulver graduated with a Master of Public Health and a PhD in medicine, titled ‘An argument on culture safety in health service delivery: towards better health outcomes for Aboriginal peoples.’

Since then, her career has focused on keeping Indigenous voices at the centre of conversations about education and health. In 2003, she began lecturing in Aboriginal health at UNSW and went on to co-found and direct the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Unit (Murri Marri) in the School of Public Health and Community Medicine in the School of Medicine. She later became UNSW’s Inaugural Chair of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health.

As the University of Sydney Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services), Professor Jackson Pulver has been an influential voice that was an integral part of shaping the One Sydney, Many People 2021-2024 Strategy (pdf, 8MB). She is currently committed to making classrooms, labs and all spaces accessible to everyone.

A younger Lisa Jackson Pulver looking into a mirror so that her reflection looks back at the camera. She has short hair and glasses.

"I became a silk screen printer and graphic artist during the 1980’s. I’m wearing a concept design for the ABC’s Play School. They never took it up.” - Professor Jackson Pulver.

Opening doors for others

Her own winding journey through academia has made her intimately aware of the difficulty students can face throughout their studies. She recalls meeting students during her time as a lecturer whose stories resonated strongly with her.

Helping others has remained at the heart of her motivations throughout her career, and she has been encouraged to see similar motivations from University of Sydney donors who want to give students a sense of stability and dignity throughout their studies.

“We’ve got a growing number of people who recognise the difficulties and acknowledge that sometimes the students with the best marks when they start university are not the ones who end up being the best and brightest by the time they finish.”

And that’s at least in part, she believes, because donors like herself are committed to supporting equity scholarships. As such, the gift Professor Jackson Pulver has left in her Will to the University is not restricted to a particular group of underrepresented students. It is intentionally broad - planned for any community group that needs support when the time comes. The decision she says, was a no-brainer.

“Well, why wouldn't I? I need to, because this place gave me an opportunity to do something that I hadn't even dreamed of. Without the University of Sydney saying, yep, come on in’, I don't know what I'd be doing now.

“I adore opening the door for others and I'm putting my money where my mouth is,” she says. “It's not just about what I'm doing today, it's about the power of what's possible and the transformation of people's lives – and the generations that follow them - that a university education can bring. And I want to make sure that goes on and I pay that forward."

Professor Jackson Pulver has simple advice for others who are considering leaving a gift in their Will. Don’t hesitate, don’t delay writing a Will, and do form a relationship with the people you give to, so they can continue to take on the world’s challenges for decades to come.

Aboriginal people have been here for more than 60,000 years, and there is so much to learn.

6 March 2023

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