Since graduating from Monash with a double major in Psychology and Criminology in a Bachelor of Arts, Laurenza has had an outstanding career as a prominent advocate for victims and survivors of sexual assault, both in Australia and internationally. At Monash's regular seminar for students ‘Arts in the Real World’, she shared her experiences of working in the community and mental health sector.
In this interview, Laurenza talks about inspiring moments at Monash, the benefits of studying and working abroad, and strategies for students to improve their employability.
What inspired you to do a double major in Psychology and Criminology?
I aspired from an early age to pursue a career in a clinical forensic setting, working with children and families who had been affected by or had engaged in interpersonal violence. I believed that psychology and criminology were reputable disciplines that would not only ground me in relevant theory but would be valued when seeking employment.
Was there a particular subject, lecture or event during your university years that you found really useful or inspiring in your personal or professional life?
My favourite subject was ‘Multiculturalism, Citizenship & Identity‘, taught by renown sociologist Dr. Denise Cuthbert, and introduced me to concepts that would remain with me throughout my professional and personal life. Dr. Cuthbert's lectures and tutorials were riveting, with her passion for discussing race and identity utterly inspiring.
My other favourite Monash memory would have to be my participation in the Student Exchange program. I spent one semester abroad at York University in Canada, and another semester abroad at Boston College in the US. These experiences were a highlight of my studies and exposed me to a diverse range of people and new ways of thinking that have shaped my world-view and given me valuable skills in adaptability and tolerance.
After your time at Monash, you worked in the field of family violence with local communities in Canada and Ghana. What did you do, and how did these opportunities come about?
I travelled to Canada for four months as part of a student placement during my Master of Social Work degree. I desired to complete the placement in Canada and at the time there was no such arrangement possible so I embraced the task of organising the placement entirely independently, which was later approved by the university. During my time at Toronto Native Child and Family Services I worked with the Ojibwe community and was responsible for conducting individual counselling for Indigenous women who had experienced family violence, as well as Indigenous children who had engaged in problem sexualised behaviour. I also co-facilitated an Indigenous men's behavioural change group and an Indigenous children's therapeutic group.
I later travelled to Ghana in West Africa as an international volunteer at the Young and Lonely Foundation, which is an NGO in Agona Swedru that works with children who have been exposed to sexual assault and/or family violence. I was responsible for liaising with local agencies such as the Department of Social Welfare and the Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit of the Ghanaian police to establish clarity around responding to disclosures of sexual assault. I then drafted and facilitated a three hour workshop on topics such as Ghanaian legislation, debunking myths of sexual assault, impacts of sexual assault on children and families, and ways to manage disclosures including communication with children and reporting/documentation requirements.
What was the experience like for you?
Both of these opportunities increased my understanding of the dynamics of violence against women and children within an alternative cultural context. As such, my experiences have emphasised the role of gender inequality and the devastating impact interpersonal violence has on the overall health and well-being of women and children. I also found the experiences heightened my appreciation of holistic practice and gave me the added benefit of experiencing a deep connection with people from different cultures, which I found to be both personally and spiritually rewarding.
What are the most rewarding aspects in pursuing a career in the community and mental health sector?
It is incredibly rewarding to bear witness to a person's journey towards healing. I find that despite the horrific nature of the trauma endured, it is impossible not to be continuously amazed by the profound sense of hope that remains – that is, this person has survived. I also find it inspiring working alongside other professionals in the criminal justice system, such as the police, child protection, forensic doctors and nurses, and lawyers. I am particularly passionate about applying my direct practice experience to work on systemic change to reduce sexual violence within our communities. It is rewarding knowing that my work transcends the micro level and that I am contributing to addressing the wider social justice issue of sexual violence. I fundamentally believe in and am committed to providing education and training to challenge the community’s understanding of violence against women and children, particularly with debunking myths that prevent recognition of interpersonal violence as a serious health issue and a criminal act.
What are some of the biggest obstacles of working in this sector?
An obstacle to pursuing a career in this setting would undoubtedly be the immense pressure and heavy workload placed on staff. A solid commitment to ongoing professional development and clinical supervision is crucial to ensure you do not experience burnout or vicarious trauma. In a field of practice that is egalitarian in nature, it is also quite challenging to find opportunities for promotion and career progression. This is further perpetuated by capped salaries, limited funding, and the fact that this is a highly specialised area which means there are fewer job opportunities than in other fields of practice that might be broader in nature.
What career advice would you give to students, especially those looking to work in the community and mental health sector?
You are ultimately responsible for establishing and fostering your own career. Apply the critical thinking skills you learned throughout your Bachelor of Arts to help you analyse the current employment opportunities afforded to you. Start participating in volunteer work as soon as possible, preferably in areas where you later want to work. Experience working directly with people would be favourable in the community and mental health sectors. Network with your lecturers and tutors and seek guidance about what you can do in addition to your study that will increase employability. Engage in as many internships as you can, preferably ones abroad or where entry is competitive. Utilise the professional support at the Monash University Careers Connect for assistance with your resume, interview skills, and how to develop your employability. Research job advertisements and once you have an idea of the type of job you would like to obtain, use the selection criteria to identity any gaps in your current experience. This will then give you a reference for what type of skills or experience you need in order to eventually apply for the job you want. Contact organisations you would like to work for and ask to speak to someone about what qualifications and skills they look for in candidates when they are recruiting. Consider pursuing further education too as many jobs in the community and mental health sector require post graduate qualifications. Make sure you seek solid advice from prospective employers regarding the suitability of postgraduate courses as unfortunately not all courses are reputable or deemed as relevant to particular roles.
What did you take from your studies and time at Monash into your career?
I learned that the only person ever really holding myself back was me and that if I could dream it, I could make it happen. Also, I realised that there is nothing as satisfying as living life the way you want and that sometimes veering off the beaten path opens your mind to a world of possibilities you otherwise could not have imagined.