From nurse to sociologist: Melissa Belle graduates after 10 years of study at University of Tasmania

Graduate: Melissa Belle is graduating from the University of Tasmania with a PhD in sociology. Picture: Paul Scambler
Graduate: Melissa Belle is graduating from the University of Tasmania with a PhD in sociology. Picture: Paul Scambler

Melissa Belle had never been to university, but after 20 years of working as an enrolled nurse, she decided it was time for a change.

Ten years later, Ms Belle is graduating from the University of Tasmania with her PhD in sociology.

“I didn’t get a lot of satisfaction out of [enrolled nursing], so I thought maybe if I went and got a bachelor of nursing and became a registered nurse, I’d be more satisfied,” she said.

“I actually found sociology in the first year of my nursing course, so I didn’t finish my bachelor of nursing – I started my arts degree the following year.”

Ms Belle said sociology matched the way she saw the world.

“It’s not enough for me to just see something and know that’s the way it is without asking ‘who’s benefiting’ and ‘why is it this way’,” she said.

Walking into university for the first time was a “really scary experience” after years of being out of the academic world – she didn’t speak to anyone for the whole first semester.

As a mature-age student, and one who had not grown up in Tasmania, at first she found the adjustment difficult, but gradually became more comfortable.

“I didn’t quite fit in anywhere, so that was difficult, but … I liked the work, kept the reading up, I really enjoyed it once I got to know a few people,” she said.

Ms Belle’s perseverance has paid off, but it hasn’t quite sunk in yet that she will soon be addressed as ‘doctor’.

She wants to pursue research in public health, as well as teaching sociology to nurses who may not realise the relevance of the subject to their work.

“This is the debate, it’s all good for a nurse to do a blood pressure, but if she can’t communicate with somebody from a socially diverse group, you’re being the eight-ball before you’ve even started,” she said.

“I think it’s about nurses learning health is socially influenced, it’s not just a biomedical thing.

“Not everybody’s ideas about health are the same as [a nurse’s] ideas about health.”

Ms Belle said her end goal for the nurses she trains is for them to one day draw on their experience of sociology from her teaching.

“I’ve run into students I’ve taught years later and they’ve said ‘now I get it’,” she said.

Graduation ceremonies for the University of Tasmania will be held over two days this week, on Friday and Saturday.