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13 Aug 2015

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Emma Donaldson has made a career out of caring for other people.

Currently studying a PhD on self-regulated learning for disaffected youth at the University of Melbourne and lecturing on special-needs education and psychology at Swinburne, Emma is today one of the leading experts in her field.

Having grown up in country Victoria, the Guild resident initially made the move to Melbourne at the age of 17 to pursue a degree in dance and drama.

However, after making a switch to education and becoming increasingly exposed to the issues facing children with special-needs, she said it didn’t take her long to find her true calling.

“There was one child that I was working with when I was going through my teacher training and I just thought this system is just not supporting you and it was so hard for me as his integration aide,” she said.

“I quickly realised that there was a gap in support for kids with special-needs and so, after I realised that I couldn’t do a lot at a school level, I moved to a not-for-profit called Autism Victoria.”

“I became a leader of a program where anyone up to the age of six that was diagnosed with autism received $12,000 from the Federal Government to go towards therapy.”

“It was really good to be part of leading that program because it helped so many families.”

From that point on, she has never looked back on pursuing her passion of helping provide a better life for children living with a disability.

However, her career pathway has taken its fair share of unexpected turns along the way, having taken on roles in special needs education in both the Cayman Islands and British Virgin Islands.

After initially travelling to Cayman Islands in 2010 to take a on a job with the government, she soon realised there was to be no job, and rather than return home, she stayed on the island and helped to establish a grassroots foundation.

“I came back to Australia and packed up everything and about nine months later I went back to Cayman to a job that was meant to be in their government and when I got there, there was no job!” she said.

“I thought well I can’t go back to Australia, I’ve just packed up my life! So there was a special-needs foundation that was very grassroots, which really wasn’t doing anything and there was this huge need for providing services to families but also to raise awareness around disability in the community.”

“Then the special-needs foundation kicked off, we had a board of eight and started to give out sponsorships and scholarships to families so that they could access more of the services because there was just such a dire need.”

During her time as director of the foundation on the remote Caribbean islands, she also worked as a part-time teacher and established a program at her school, which provided sponsorship to students who weren’t able to access education.

In 2012, she moved to the British Virgin Islands for two years to work alongside an international school to establish the “Solution Studio” – a learning hub for students with special needs.

Having intended to stay on and continue strengthening special-needs education and services in the region, she told Southbank Local News that her career took yet another unexpected turn, which would see her return to Southbank.

“I’d been asked to stay on and do that full-time but they had trouble getting a work permit for me so I ended up being deported three times in total,” she said.

“I came back to Australia and I couldn’t get back on the island so I had to stay here, which wasn’t a bad thing to be stuck in Southbank I’m very happy with the place!”

“I continued to consult online and then realised that my time in the Caribbean was probably done and I needed to settle down here,” she said.

While frustrated not to be able to continue her work on the island, the setback failed to dampen her enthusiasm.

Since returning home in 2014, she has helped to establish the world’s first free massive online open course (MOOC) to assist students, families and carers living and working with autism.  

As well as studying a PhD, Emma continues to work with a number of organisations and presents publicly on special-needs education and said she was determined to continue providing a better life for those she cared about.

“It’s exciting to be able to pass on my experience to future generations as it’s an area that is constantly growing in Australia,” she said.

“What’s exciting is that there is a real inclusion in special-needs and wanting to make sure that the system doesn’t do what it’s always done to make a difference.”

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