Paramedic riding on a legacy of courage | UniSC | University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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Paramedic riding on a legacy of courage

Advanced care paramedic and adventurer Emma Williams, a Wakka Wakka woman, left school at 15 to join the workforce. Despite career success throughout the years, Emma felt driven by her grandparents’ incredible legacy to pursue higher education, their key to get out of working in slavery. Now, she is doing all she can to ensure their sacrifices are honoured and their courage paid forward.

Emma grew up on Darumbal country, Rockhampton in Central Queensland. At 15, she left school and went to work full-time with the Rockhampton City Council, after receiving an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traineeship, which enabled her to start a career in administration.

Once the traineeship finished, Emma diversified her career at Thrifty Car Rental, managing the Central Queensland franchise. After several years, she was ready for a sea change and wanted to pursue “greater experiences.” With her mum and sister already living in the UK, she packed up and left Rockhampton for London.

Without any formal education qualifications, Emma took a leap of faith and applied for a job at the Australian High Commission in London, as a ‘Visits Officer' which gave her the responsibility of looking after Australian ministers and parliamentarians when they travelled to the UK.

“It was an amazing job and I absolutely loved it, but after nine years, I realised I wasn’t that interested in politics and was ready for my next challenge... there was still a driving force for me to go to university,” she says.

Emma’s main driving force were her grandparents, Maureen and George Williams, Aboriginal people who “worked extremely hard to ensure their seven children had an education."

Like many Aboriginal people in the 1940s and 50s, Maureen worked as a domestic servant and George worked as a stockman and station hand in Western Queensland. Home was a tent, until they saved up enough money to buy some land on the outskirts of Longreach, where George built a one room shack with no electricity.

They were one of only two Aboriginal families in Longreach, but living in town was important to Maureen and George who were determined their kids would have an education and achieve a life they could only have dreamed about. Maureen had loved going to school, but only got to go for four years before she was sent to work. George told his children education meant they could escape “being a slave like me.”

Incredibly, five of their seven children ended up not just finishing high school, but obtaining a tertiary education, including Emma’s uncle, Adjunct Professor Kevin Williams, who is an Elder in residence at the University of the Sunshine Coast (UniSC).

“Uncle Kevin was the first blackfella to graduate from Central Queensland University, back in the 1980s,” Emma says.

To honour their legacy, Uncle Kevin established the CQUniCares Maureen and George Williams Law Scholarship to celebrate the vision of his parents and to encourage and support Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander students.

“Grandma was such an amazing woman to have the vision for her family that education was the key to get out of working in slavery, and the way to better the future of her family.”

“Knowing their story, I always wanted to go to university, but in figuring out what that was going to be, I took the long way around … in the end I chose paramedicine.”

Paramedicine ticked all Emma’s boxes. Every day would be different. It would be a challenging job, where she would be able to help people. And it’s a lifelong learning career, with no two patients ever the same. Having made the decision to study paramedicine at UniSC, Emma then had to venture far beyond her academic comfort zone.

“Daunting would be an understatement,” she says, reflecting on her first day of uni.

“I walked on to campus thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh… what have I gotten myself into?'

"On my first day, I met a beautiful paramedic student named Katrina (Kat), and we’ve been great friends since.

"Having somebody to start that journey with was key, because we were both in that situation of being mature aged students and being out of the education system for such a long time.”

Emma threw herself into the study environment and treated it like a fulltime job. She took the study load seriously because, at the end of the day, Emma would graduate as a paramedic with responsibility for somebody's family member.

Having the support of UniSC’s Buranga Centre was also essential for Emma, as a culturally safe space to meet, connect, and study alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student, Elders, staff and community.

“It felt like I had an extended family who could point me in the right direction when I was struggling, or if I was having a bad day or needed a pick me up, I could just go in there, have a cup of tea and a yarn.”

Emma and staff at UniSC's Buranga Centre (R-L): Emma Williams (ACP2/Indigenous Liaison Officer, QAS), Professor Joe Fraser (Pro Vice-Chancellor, Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Strategy), Sharon Sticklen (Community Outreach & Engagement Officer), Uncle Kevin Williams (Adjunct Professor & Elder-in-Residence) and Denika Sticklen (Community Outreach & Engagement Officer).

“The Buranga Centre also introduced me to Cassie, my inspiring first mentor, and to see another Aboriginal woman succeeding at university made me believe I could do it too.

"I often say to our mob, ‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.’

While a student, Emma applied for a patient transport officer role with the Queensland Ambulance Service (QAS) and was fortunate to get a position on the Sunshine Coast. In 2016, she joined the QAS Indigenous Paramedic Program (IPP), which enabled her to gain an independent qualification with QAS, so she could work on the road as a technician during her third year of university.

“What you learn in a classroom is very valuable, but what you experience on placement or on the road when you are working actually cements the theoretical knowledge,” she says.

Emma graduated from UniSC in 2018, receiving a University Medal for Academic Excellence. Since then, there have been no shortages of adventure for Emma and her equally daring partner James McAlloon, mostly to raise funds and awareness for social justice causes close to their hearts.

These adventures began with a trans-Australia crossing – on foot – to fundraise for South American communities plunged into poverty during the pandemic.

During COVID, James set himself the goal of walking coast to coast across Australia, but when Western Australia closed its borders to non-residents, he changed course and walked the final 1,300 kilometres from Port Augusta north to finish in Uluru instead.

In 2022, Emma joined James to complete his original mission. Together, they trekked through incredibly remote areas of the Northern Territory and Western Australia, covering a total distance of 1,700 kilometres over 39 days. They walked the equivalent of a marathon each day from Alice Springs to Broome across the Tanami desert, with around 1,100 kilometres of unsealed road.

“Our genius flatmate built us purpose-made trolleys to carry 60 litres of water and all of our camping equipment and food supplies for up to two weeks at a time,” she recalls.

“The communities we passed through were just spectacular… we’d sought the permission of the land councils to be guests on their land and walk across their Country.

“But we also wanted to give back to the communities we were walking through, so we raised money for Purple House, an Indigenous-owned and run health service.

“We were blown away by the generosity of people, strangers, and raised about $3.5k to donate to Purple House.”

In July 2023, Emma set off on a solo journey cycling all the way from Alice Springs to Alexandra Headlands to complete her trans-Australia crossing. She rode 2,700 kilometres in just 25 days, raising $6.5k for Queensland Ambulance Service Legacy, who support QAS families that have suffered the loss of a loved one.

The most magical moment of Emma’s journey happened as she entered Cracow, a tiny town in Wakka Wakka Country, where her grandmother had lived.

“I’d experienced hectic headwinds for nearly the entire first 19 days of my trip, until the moment I entered grandma's country, where the wind suddenly stopped,” she says.

"Cycling through my grandma's country I wanted to take the time to think about our Elders, our ancestors, and to reflect on their challenges which have given us the opportunities we have today, especially within education and employment."

“It was such a different environment for them – my great, great, great grandfather was one of the first Aboriginal people to see whitefellas  –  I wanted to pay my respects, and to see places of significance for my people.”

The adventures didn’t stop there. In January 2024, Emma and James headed to Mt Aconcagua in Argentina on an expedition to summit the tallest peak in South America. After ten days, Emma successfully summited the highest mountain in the southern hemisphere at a height of 6,962m.

Just two months later, Emma and her brother David Williams were among nine Indigenous Australians to form the ‘Blak Trekkers’ team to climb to Everest Base Camp in support of Black Dog Institute's mental health and suicide awareness programs for First Nations peoples. The group raised an incredible $63,209 to go towards their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Lived Experience Centre.

Emma works as an Advanced Care Paramedic and Indigenous Liaison Officer for the Queensland Ambulance Service.

In recognition of her outstanding fundraising efforts, Emma was elected as a finalist for the 2023 QBANK Everyday Heroes Awards, which celebrates the achievements of workers within Queensland police, fire, health, ambulance, corrections, justice, public service, education and volunteers.

“I certainly don't see myself as an everyday hero, but I am very grateful for the opportunity to give back whenever I can.”

“I believe my journey is thanks to so many amazing people around me, as our successes are often only possible due to the sacrifices that others make to help us.”

Bachelor of Paramedicine

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