Elizabeth Phan makes a video about one of VU's strengths - multiculturalism

A Victoria University social work graduate has been acknowledged by Premier Dan Andrews for her determination to find a great job during COVID’s challenge of job losses and increasing unemployment.

Elizabeth Phan, 28, is now a community worker with the Brotherhood of St Laurence, helping to keep vulnerable Victorians connected, after a seven-month search that yielded only three interviews from 200 job applications.

She found the position through the State Government’s Working for Victoria program, designed to match people with jobs that contribute to Victoria’s pandemic response.

But the road to her new role was far from straight forward.

Born to a Vietnamese refugee family as Ngoc Bao Tran Phan, she discovered early in her job search that she needed to legally change her first name to Elizabeth to overcome the systematic discrimination she experienced when looking for work.

“One company I was interviewing with assumed I couldn’t speak English, so they hired an interpreter without asking me if I needed one.”

Long road to the right career

Before social work, Elizabeth tried a few other careers, including nursing, pathology, and even make-up artistry before she found her true calling. The ‘lightbulb moment’ came when she recognised she loved helping to empower people, especially women.

“When I worked in make-up, I saw some women using it to fit the expectations of others, especially men. That’s when I became interested in feminism and social rights.”

The long-time Deer Park resident decided in 2016 “it was about time I picked VU” and enrolled in a Bachelor of Social Work.

“Everything just clicked once I arrived. I’d struggled at other universities, but VU’s support and its focus on diversity helped me thrive as an adult learner.”

Elizabeth also got involved in activities outside the classroom. She worked as an adviser to new and prospective students at VU’s student contact centre, VUHQ, and participated in an intercultural leadership program, iLEAP, developed by VU’s Cultural Diversity Office in partnership with the Brotherhood of St Laurence.

Since graduating in 2019, Elizabeth said she is thankful she is now using her social work training and Vietnamese language skills to support Melbourne’s public housing residents in her new role.

Elizabeth’s mother, Van, whom she describes as “just like me but an older-body version” has told her daughter she is proud of Elizabeth’s determination to try several careers and jobs to find the right one.

Her mother instilled in her daughter a sense that hard work and determination are important. She began helping her mum with her own job sewing trouser drawstrings from the home sewing machine for just five cents apiece after school and on weekends.

In primary school, Elizabeth’s mother took her and her brother to Vietnam – where they had never been – to live with extended family for three months when she believed her children “were becoming too ungrateful in Australia”.

“She made us go to orphanages to see what hard life really was. A lot of my strength, determination and connection to people is from her.”   

Social work degree helps graduates connect

Head of VU Social Work Associate Professor Annie Venville said Elizabeth’s capacity to lead, inspire and connect was nurtured and encouraged during her four-year degree.

“At VU, we believe in strong partnerships with our students and communities and Elizabeth’s experience is a shining example of the commitment of our social work programs to students from all backgrounds.

“Graduates like Elizabeth display the skills, courage and resilience needed to enable our communities to become stronger, inclusive and more connected.”

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