FeaturesSurf, snakes and psychology

Surf, snakes and psychology

“My heart is in Jersey but my future lies in Australia,” confesses Vanessa Birkinshaw (née Rowe), a former-banker-turned-psychologist living in Perth, Western Australia. 

In this single sentence, Vanessa sums up her situation poignantly. But this is a woman who has overcome many challenges and, just like the Chumbawamba song: I Get Knocked Down, Vanessa always gets back up again.
Take, for example, her introduction to university in Perth eight years ago. Vanessa began the course on crutches while recovering from a car accident, but she can still joke about it. She recalls, “The car rolled downhill and ended up suspended by two trees making it look a bit like a gull-winged version of a Vauxhall Zafira!”
Earlier in Jersey – and encouraged by a former lecturer, Gillian Bunting – Vanessa had already completed the first year of the Combined Social Sciences degree at Highlands College.
“I actually fell asleep at the end of the psychology exam,” she says, “given that I’d given birth only a few weeks earlier, this was unsurprising!” Nonetheless, her excellent results drove her to continuing her studies in Perth after moving there with her young family.
The transition to Perth wasn’t an easy one, however, and Vanessa found herself homesick for Jersey. “I cried every day for about six months”, she admits. “I missed the familiarity, the smallness of St Helier. It was like a culture shock”. Then she bumped into a Jersey girl at a leisure centre and felt she could finally share everything she missed about Jersey.
Her first day at Murdoch University in Australia was a weird experience. She notes, “I’d never been surrounded by so many people yet not know anyone!” Sitting in the first lecture among 300 students, Vanessa decided to post an electronic note on the local noticeboard inviting anyone else who didn’t know anyone to meet at Walter’s Café – a campus café coincidentally run by a Jerseyman.  Several people turned up and remain in touch to this day.
After finishing her degree, Vanessa signed up for a post-graduate Diploma in Education and School Psychology at the University of Western Australia and was fortunate enough to find work straight away, and at one point was juggling several jobs. Currently, Vanessa is employed as a ‘provisionally registered’ psychologist working with students with challenges on a two-year internship.

Vanessa says, “a cleaning lady said to me last year, ‘oh i’m just a cleaner’, i replied that the previous year i too was a cleaner, worked in the body shop, t2 and as a teaching assistant. No-one’s just anyone.”  

Meanwhile, her marriage came to an end and one of the conditions of the divorce is that she has to live no more than three hours away from her children’s father. She says it’s been not easy raising the children on her own and there probably would have been more emotional support for her as a single parent in Jersey.
However, she says there are many opportunities to stretch oneself in Perth and her children have taken this on board. Her daughter became a State champion in Latin and Ballroom dancing and her son is a talented drummer in a band.
It’s not all work though and in her spare time, Vanessa enjoys surfing. The main difference between there and surfing at St Ouen’s Bay?  Sharks! But more people’s lives are lost on the roads than in shark attacks, she points out.
As an alternative to Perth’s beaches, Vanessa and her family often head south to the famous surf spot at Margaret River where they enjoy camping out. Although she has camped many times, putting up a tent single-handedly is one challenge Vanessa admits she has yet to master.
In these more rural areas they frequently see kangaroos and kookaburras. And snakes too. “We saw one on the road just a few months after arrival and thought it was just another speed bump … then someone shrieked, ‘No, it’s a Dugite crossing the road!’“ , says Vanessa.  (NB: A venomous snake native to Western Australia).
Bushfires are another hazard and last February a fire came so close it was just over her garden fence. She says it was a surreal experience and rather chilling to hear the emergency service’s automated telephone warning: Prepare to leave or defend your home.
“I was trying to catch the cats and carry the goldfish,” explains Vanessa. “My daughter, having gone to safety, was texting me requesting I pack her laptop and make-up, my son was texting me to pack his drum kit and my youngest son wanted his teddy bear!  I must have provided on-street entertainment to the TV crew outside my house when I staggered out with a pile of photo albums, laptop leads, the cats …and my surfboard!” (Not covered by home insurance).
Even her Jersey friends, the Minty family, contacted her at the time urging her to get out. They are among the close friends she misses from home, although she has made some good friends in Australia too.


What else does Vanessa miss from Jersey? The Island’s proximity to France, as the gateway to Europe, she says. “And, I know it sounds weird”, she adds, “But I really miss the rain!”

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