Contributing to Indigenous health internationally

Maya Morton Ninomiya, a fourth-year Health student, discusses her experience working in Australia and provides all the tips and tricks to tackling a term abroad.

What is your year and program?

I am currently in my fourth year of Health Studies!

Who is your employer?

The National Centre for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Wellbeing Research, at the Australian National University (ANU).

What are your responsibilities in the workplace and what does your work entail?

Maya Morton Ninomiya smiling while holding a poster board.

I am a research assistant and one of my main projects is conducting a narrative review on the links between colonization and cancer. I am working with a team of Indigenous and non-Indigenous epidemiologists and researchers focused on improving health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. I also work on knowledge translation deliverables using my graphic design skills to make our research findings more accessible. For example, creating illustrations at national workshops, designing conference posters and developing other useful ways of visually communicating research results as directed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

For my previous work term, I was a research assistant in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of British Columbia working towards improving the surgical outcomes of breast cancer patients.

For my first work term, I was a clinical intern at iCare, an ophthalmology clinic in Ottawa, where I conducted diagnostic testing, aided in streamlining the workflow of patients and developed informative patient information pamphlets and waiting room displays.

 "Embedding Indigenous Excellence"What has been the highlight of your current work term?

The highlight of my work term has been travelling to Darwin, the capital city of the Northern Territory, Australia, with the Tobacco Free Team to participate in the National Tackling Indigenous Smoking (TIS) Workshop. I was there for one week and got to meet over 250 members of TIS teams from all over the country.


They’re all doing incredible work to decrease smoking rates for Indigenous Peoples all across Australia, to ultimately eliminate commercial tobacco-related death and disease.

How do you think this experience and/or your previous co-ops have helped you develop yourself?

Maya Morton Ninomiya standing around a table.

This experience has helped me to become more empathetic, open-minded and culturally aware as I learn to work as part of a team with diverse lived experience. While my Health Studies degree has taught me about inequities in health care, this job has given me more insight and understanding into the complex nature of health and wellbeing inequities that exist for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in Australia and for Indigenous Peoples in other countries, such as Canada, the U.S. and New Zealand.

I have begun to understand health and well-being as more than physical and mental health, but also the connection to land, kin and the ability to access cultural, safe care. This experience has allowed me to recognize the gaps in health service and delivery for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples originating from coloniality.

As a non-Indigenous person, I would like to contribute to addressing these gaps by working with Indigenous peoples on Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination.

How did you overcome challenges during this work term and/or previous ones?

Maya Morton Ninomiya standing among other students.

I make extensive efforts to be sure I communicate clearly with co-workers and supervisors to let them know what I was struggling with, whether it was work-related or personal challenges that were impacting my work. I’ve also talked through some of the challenges I’m having with my roommates and friends that I trust from back home and those locally as I build friendships. This helps me to put my challenges into perspective and to figure out what I need to do to address them.

Research positions tend to be very project-focused and require independence, with lots of self-directed research and writing. I struggled with this when I started my first research job but after speaking with my friend and roommate who was also doing research, we held each other accountable by working together at cafés and from home at regular hours.

 What, Where, How & Why."Why did you decide to do a co-op abroad?

I decided to do co-op abroad to experience and learn from different perspectives and worldviews. I had done previous co-ops in other provinces and these had gone very well so I decided that I was ready to go farther away from home.


How did you find this job?

I found this job by reaching out to some connections I had through family friends, who told me a research assistant position was open at the Centre about eight months before my co-op term. From there I applied, had an interview, did a work sample test and was offered the job five months later.

What is your biggest lesson learned about taking a co-op in a different country?

I learned that preparing well in advance for finding housing and getting visas and health care plans arranged, saved me so much stress and helped me to feel so much more prepared and confident for when I arrived.

What tips do you have for other students who are thinking about taking a co-op term in a different country?

My biggest tip is to, whenever possible, try to put yourself in positions where you are able to make friends who can support you as you learn to live in a new country.

Invest in finding good housing and joining clubs or groups that will allow you to meet people your age with similar interests. This will also allow you to explore so much more, as well as provide you with emotional support when/if you need. For example, I didn’t know anyone living in Australia before moving here for an 8-month co-op, so I prioritized finding community-focused housing where I would be able to make good friends.

I am now living at the Canberra Student Housing Co-operative, where I have made lots of friends with other students my age. I also joined the ANU volleyball team with the aim of staying active and making more connections with other students on campus.

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