Vicki Horner spent her life sensing that something was missing. Her discovery of a devastating family event revealed her Aboriginal heritage and set her on a new path. Now a Lecturer (Indigenous Support) at the School of Nursing and Midwifery, she encourages Indigenous and non-Indigenous students to realise their potential... and open their eyes.
When you first meet her, Vicki Horner has the polite but cautious presence of someone who’s seen the harsh side to humanity. As she takes a seat around the yarning circle of the sacred Aboriginal Gumbi Gumbi gardens at USQ, her expression is hard to read. She’s joined by her colleagues and cousins, Di Lucas and Raelene Ward. We’ve met here to exchange stories and reflect on the complex balance between responsibilities as an Aboriginal woman - at work and in the community.
Vicki sits quietly while others speak, her fingers intertwined. Then, with some gentle encouragement, she shares her story.
‘I was born in Jandowae and grew up in Toowoomba. My dad was Aboriginal but he didn’t identify as such.’ Vicki pauses, suddenly wiping her eyes. ‘My grandmother was raped by a white man; a property-owner’s son. My father was the product of that rape. That man took what he shouldn’t have. It was never spoken of. I knew something was missing as a young girl because I was very close to Dad.’
It wasn’t until Vicki had children of her own that she felt it was time to search for the truth of her family’s past.
‘After searching, my sister and I hit upon the truth that changed our lives forever. We discovered our aboriginality in our late twenties. It was a piece of a puzzle we had been looking for. Growing up, I had been roaming between two worlds. Now, here at USQ with Rae, Di and Odette, it feels right.’
The road to USQ
Vicki has been interested in healthcare since childhood. ‘I remember caring for my uncle. He was a returned soldier who lived with the family in his older years. He had developed leg ulcers due to being Diabetic. When the community nurse would attend to his leg dressings, I was always in the way, taking a sticky-beak in the gory dressings and wounds - the gorier, the better!’
Having excelled at school, Vicki was the only member of her family to complete year 10. However, it wasn’t until Vicki gave birth to her second child that the thoughts that lay dormant from the past came to the fore.
‘My son was born with spina bifida; his spinal cord failed to develop properly. I thought, where did this come from? And then I told myself, pull your socks up. I started thinking seriously about becoming a nurse to care for him. I was there for him at all of his major operations. I was learning by observing and thinking, I can do this!’
And she did. ‘I said to my daughter that I wanted to study nursing’. She said, ‘Why not? Go on, Mum!’
Enrolling at USQ as a mature age student, Vicki completed her undergraduate degree to become a Registered Nurse, before also obtaining a Master of Midwifery. She then spent 15 years in the hospital setting and in the community before returning to USQ in 2009 in student support.
Vicki’s impact at USQ
Today, as Indigenous Support lecturer in the School of Nursing and Midwifery, Vicki’s role extends beyond clinical teaching. She provides support to Indigenous students navigating life in a western context while they work to preserve family connections and fulfil cultural responsibilities.
‘I loved being hands-on in the hospital setting, but I am passionate about supporting nursing students to empower them to fulfil their dreams. As Aboriginal academics, we need to support students on their journey of obtaining a degree - particularly as they are often the first in their family to attend university. They have goals, but they can be shamed for leaving their community to attend university. That’s why we lose Indigenous students; to study can be an ethical decision for them. It may not be the right time for them.’
Another of Vicki’s responsibilities is educating non-Indigenous students about Aboriginal history and culture, and emphasising the need for mutual understanding and respect. It’s clear that Vicki and her colleagues are part of a powerful minority; a cohort of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics and professionals who are re-educating Australia on its true history from within higher education institutions.
‘Some students have only heard about the Captain Cook version. For many, that perspective is ingrained. There has been so much injustice. Our passion for Aboriginal cultures comes out naturally in the way we teach.’
It’s not always easy, particularly for Vicki, whose skin colour is lighter than some of her Aboriginal colleagues.
‘People ask, why are you white? Are you a white person trying to be Aboriginal? The ignorance is astounding. But I always say, let’s explore that further.’
While it’s clear that this is a journey - for USQ’s communities and people across Australia - Vicki clearly feels proud and happy to be here, doing her important work.
‘The support is exceptional here. Having three Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in nursing is powerful. There’s an unspoken rule: we support one another. We drop everything to help one another. That means so much to me; I’ve found where I belong.’
Find out more about current career opportunities and what it’s like to work at USQ.