With the red, black and yellow sash across their graduation gowns, three strong Aboriginal women have graduated with a postgraduate Doctor of Dental Medicine from the University of Western Australia (UWA).

Graduating with 232 other students, Hira Rind, Patricia Elder and Ashlee Bence are boosting Australia’s Indigenous dentist workforce by six percent, which currently stands at 46 First Nations dentists practicing across the nation.

Yindjibarndi/Yamatji woman, Dr Elder, who grew up in Northampton, will be moving to Kununurra in the new year to pursue a role in the Government Dental Health Service, working within the Rural and Remote Outreach Program.

“I’m from rural, so I wanted to go back as soon as possible and have always wanted to do the outreach program,” Dr Elder said.

Finding her feet through the Follow the Dream program during her high schooling in Geraldton, Ms Elder completed her Bachelor of Science (Nursing) at Edith Cowan University before moving onto dentistry at UWA.

“I tossed up between Medicine or Dentistry and got in touch with the School of Indigenous Studies. They helped me access the pathways of dentistry and gave me all the information I needed to pursue a career in dentistry,” she said.

Partway through her study, Dr Elder discovered her Yindjibarndi heritage through connecting with her sister.

“I grew up as a Yamatji woman but partway through my degree I found I am also Yindjibarndi … that was a big experience for me. I got to go up and meet some of my family for the first time at the beginning of this year which was really welcoming,” Dr Elder said.

“I think the whole reason why I decided to do healthcare work was so I could make a difference for our people. Now being a dentist, I have more ability to be able to influence people and encourage them to make better habits … that is really important for our people.”

Dr Rind is a proud Yamatji woman who always wanted to purse dentistry, but held herself back.

“I always wanted to do dentistry but I thought I wasn’t smart enough, I didn’t believe I was going to graduate until that day,” she laughed.

Dr Rind worked with BHP and the Department of WA Health, before enrolling into the postgraduate course. Taking a chance, she pushed herself to give it all she had.

“There were long hours, I didn’t see my family for weeks and I didn’t have a social life. I’m still recovering, I’m exhausted.”

“Things got better, in dentistry you have to have good hand skills. You are an artist, you’re a scientist, a psychologist, a photographer and an engineer.”

Dr Rind had to overcome her own mental battle, pushing the barriers she felt had been built around her.

“We limit our own selves. As an Aboriginal person, we’re always told we are not good enough or smart enough.”

“You’re mentally trained to limit yourself. But us women, we can do anything we put our minds too, we can break barriers.”

In 2020, Dr Rind will be working in Karratha in the Pilbara region.

Dr Bence lived in Melbourne and worked as an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) nurse before moving to Perth. Since graduating, Ms Bence has been working for Derbal Yerrigan Aboriginal Service in Perth and within a private clinic.

UWA Pro Vice Chancellor and Indigenous Education Professor, Jill Milroy expressed her pride seeing three Indigenous women graduate the course.

“They are such great role models for Indigenous people and will be working to improve oral health, particularly in regional and remote areas of our state,” Professor said.

With their graduation caps thrown and the gowns packed away, the dentists are now preparing to jump into the year ahead. They have hope their journey can inspire young Aboriginal women to pursue their dreams and have pride in who they are.

“At the end of the day, whatever you study, whatever you become – know who you are. That’s the advice my parents always give, be humble, be yourself, know your ancestors, know your roots,” Dr Rind said.

“You should be proud of your culture and who you are – you are something special.”

By Rachael Knowles