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Alumni Stories

Finding a way to engage nature ... with empathy

When she graduated from the ¶¶ÒõPorn in March with a Bachelor of Science (Environmental Science), Eliana Hack wore her customary gentle smile, and a beautiful opal pendant passed down from her late grandmother – one of her first friends and biggest fans, always on hand to provide loving motivation.

“When I was a kid, my grandma was the one who sat with me after school and practised my times tables, handwriting, spelling and reading,” Eliana says. “She was a huge driver for me to go to uni.

“My grandma passed away suddenly in October last year, and I wear her pendant every day with pride. My whole family came to my graduation, and I know it would have meant the world to my grandma – I know she was cheering loudly, in spirit.”

Eliana grew up in the Bega Valley, with a deep appreciation for the natural environment and a lifelong love of animals.

“I was surrounded by national parks, coastline and beaches … and I was always pretty animal-obsessed,” she says.

“I spent a lot of my younger years riding horses, and had so many pets – plus, my parents were native wildlife carers before my sister Bronte and I were born, so an appreciation of wildlife and the natural environment has always run in our blood!”

Eliana also enjoyed wildlife photography as a hobby. In spite of her natural leanings though, she hadn’t quite decided where her career path would lie by the time she finished high school.

“I knew that I would go to uni – like my grandparents, mum and aunty did. So there was a focus on obtaining a good tertiary education,” she says. “I just didn’t know what I wanted to focus on when I did go.”

So she took a gap year – which happened to coincide with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When the café I was working at had to close because of lockdowns, I started volunteering at Potoroo Palace, a native wildlife sanctuary about 20 minutes up the road, near Merimbula,” Eliana says. “I made a lot of interesting friends there, and interacted with – and photographed – more wildlife than ever before.”

Someone in her new circle of kindred spirits told Eliana all about the environmental science course he had done at UC, and how much he had enjoyed it. She felt the pieces slowly click into place – “It sounded like it was right up my alley,” she says.

By the time she reached her second year of uni, Eliana had hit her academic stride, studying the plant and animal science subjects she really enjoyed.

“I appreciated that my course was a good mix of class-based and lab learning, field work and self-directed study, and we also had a good support network in our lecturers,” she says. “Enjoying those subjects meant that I saw my marks pick up, and received several Dean’s Excellence Awards as well, which was very encouraging.”

This was especially true after the challenges she encountered in her first year.

“Going from a gap year into uni was a bit of a rough transition, and there were challenges – suddenly, I was juggling classes, assignments and exams, and there was a point in my first year when I was feeling very overwhelmed and living away from my family was really, really hard,” she says.

“I mentioned this to my family, and they were really supportive, and said regardless of my choice, they’d have my back – but that I should just consider it carefully, because that first year is always the hardest to adapt to anything new.

“So I decided to stick it out, and in the end, it was all so worth it and gave me such a great foundation – I just needed some motivation and determination to get through.”

While she found her academic groove in her final year, it was not without its own set of considerable challenges – Eliana had to cope with her grandmother’s passing, while juggling classes and ongoing hospital visits as another close family member dealt with a serious illness.

“Again, friends and family came through for me in this tricky and overwhelming time,” she says. “Everyone offered support in any way that they could. This was, once more, a key factor for me in continuing my studies.”

While her volunteering with local and regional parks and conservation spaces continued in her time at uni, Eliana also did a placement with ACT National Parks as part of her course. It saw her surveying rabbit populations on Black Mountain Reserve for three weeks.

“I did that solo, to help determine if their numbers were getting out of control in the area,” she says.

“Being able to work independently on this project was a great experience – and at the end, being able to see that the data I had provided and logged into their field maps was actually providing useful resources.”

And while she was surveying rabbits, Eliana found herself on a bit of a side quest as well.

“I discovered there was silky hakea absolutely everywhere,” she says. “It’s a shrub which is not endemic to the area. So I reported that to my supervisor, and they were able to begin investigating and controlling the population in the reserve.”

After finishing her course, Eliana started a position as a graduate ecologist with an environmental consulting company. With the position based in her home town of Bega, Eliana found herself working with the wildlife she’s loved all her life – and it felt like coming full circle.

“I was one of three picked from 200 applicants, so that was pretty awesome,” she says. “So much of the coursework I did at UC was relevant to this position, because it was broad enough to be 100 per cent transferable.”

Eliana especially loved the field work component of her job, which included surveys and assessments of vegetation and fauna to generate the information needed for biodiversity offsets and management.

Having recently left that position, she is travelling in the Philippines, before planning her next career step.

Ultimately, the thing that matters most to Eliana is to be able make a daily difference – however small – to the natural environment.

“Plants, animals and humans – constantly learning more about how we co-exist and interact, and finding better ways to do that with kindness and empathy – that is really what it’s all about for me.”

Words by Suzanne Lazaroo, photos by Liam Budge.

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