Hunter medical students visit Stockton sand dunes as part of immersive program

Giving: Felicity Cheng, with Demi Cheetham, originally wanted to be a history teacher in a rural community.
Giving: Felicity Cheng, with Demi Cheetham, originally wanted to be a history teacher in a rural community. "From a young age it was drilled into me that with privilege comes a responsibility to give back, to use what you've been given to give everyone else a chance." Picture: Simone De Peak

GROWING up, Demi Cheetham saw firsthand the importance of closing the gap and achieving equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in health and life expectancy.

"My family placed a really big emphasis on the importance of education," said Ms Cheetham, 27, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman whose family is from the Djiru and Djabugay mobs of Far North Queensland and Thursday Island in the Torres Strait.

"My father sacrificed everything to give me an education, to choose what I wanted to do, to give me that opportunity," she said.

"I was always interested in the human body and I witnessed the effects of the gap in health inequality in my local community and how that impacted the health of my community."

Ms Cheetham is a fourth year medical student in the University of Newcastle and University of New England Joint Medical Program, which has graduated more than half of Australia's Indigenous doctors.

"I want to be an advocate for my people, be a role model for the younger generation and community members, to show that it is possible to do whatever you want, you don't have to be pigeonholed into a stereotype or think you're not good enough," she said.

"I'm hopeful I can make a difference at a community level and for all people in general."

Ms Cheetham was one of 31 fourth year medical students who visited Worimi Local Aboriginal Land Council's Murrook Culture Centre at Williamtown on Tuesday, for a cultural immersion experience.

Special: Demi Cheetham and Felicity Cheng at the bight, where Justin Ridgeway said up to 28 species still live.

Special: Demi Cheetham and Felicity Cheng at the bight, where Justin Ridgeway said up to 28 species still live.

The students are enrolled in the Pathways to Medical Practice program, which allocates them to one of five priority topic areas: Indigenous health, laboratory medicine, global health, health professional education or rural health.

The course description said the program was "designed to extend the capabilities of a student beyond, and in more depth than, related core threshold learning outcomes".

It comprises extended learning in fourth year and a placement experience in fifth year.

"It is envisaged that for many students, the pathway will articulate with an identified career path or special interest," the course description said.

"For other students it may be used to gain an insight, or to set themselves a challenge in an area that they might ordinarily not have contemplated, for example, as an alternative to an envisaged career path."

The students started the day at Murrook Culture Centre with a smoking ceremony, before the centre's culture heritage and education unit manager Justin Ridgeway took them to Worimi Conservation Lands, also known as Stockton Bight, and shared stories from the local area.

He told the students the area was spiritually significant and used to be stable forested dunes, but had eroded due to 4WD tourism, sand extraction, camping and wind and water patterns.

"I'm at the stage on my cultural journey where I know quite a bit, but I always want to know more," Ms Cheetham said.

"Especially about being off country and in another mob's country, I want to learn about its culture and heritage."

Fellow student Felicity Cheng, 23, said she'd always been fascinated by Indigenous culture, especially bush medicine.

"We're so lucky in Australia to have 60,000 plus years of history behind us and so much to learn from that as well."