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A passion for helping young people drives Social Work graduate to succeed

19/11/2020 |
5 mins

Ashleigh Small only graduated from UWA in 2019 but she has achieved more success in her career than most achieve in a lifetime. 

Since graduating with a master’s degree in social work, Ashleigh has been nominated for Young Australian of the Year 2021, and is the founder of Hello Initiative (HI), an organisation addressing access and equity challenges facing young people in the criminal justice system, and providing the practical tools to help them create a better future.

HI connects young people with a broad network of support to assist them in meeting court and legal requirements, establishing communities of support and developing organisational life skills.

Ashleigh attributes her time at UWA studying social work for giving her the confidence and skills to achieve so much in such a short time.

“Social work holds such broad opportunities for your future career, and equips you with the ‘soft skills’ that are becoming increasingly critical in modern workplaces, like person-centred practice and professional empathy.”

“If you care about your community and want to tackle ‘wicked problems’ (i.e. social or cultural problems so complex they seem impossible to solve), social work can take you there.”

But her pathway to success hasn’t been entirely straightforward. After completing a Bachelor of Arts in 2016, Ashleigh was unsure what she wanted to do, although she was certain she wanted to work with people and help people every day. 

Looking to expand her experience portfolio and skillset, Ashleigh decided the values of social work aligned with her own personal values, and would give her the opportunity to work across diverse issues related to social justice and equality.

“As soon as I started the course I realised I had made a great choice and that the empathetic and context-driven model of work in social work would give me a great platform from which to drive social impact.”  

Ashleigh Small

Ashleigh credits her lecturers and her course coordinator Dr Mark Sachmann for making her time at UWA so enjoyable. She also makes a special mention of Dr Stephan Lund, her lecturer and mentor through the UWA Career Mentor Link program. And, a final-year practical placement in which she spent 16 weeks working with young people engaged in the criminal justice system through the Aboriginal Legal Service was a formative experience and is what led Ashleigh to establishing Hello Initiative.

“This experience was very challenging but also rewarding, and has come to define the way I approach challenges and work with diverse communities in my post-uni life.”

In addition to her role as CEO at Hello Initiative, Ashleigh is currently employed with the East Metropolitan Health Service at the Innovation Hub. Here she works with clinical and non-clinical health staff to identify and unpack diverse challenges (‘wicked problems’), and applying international best practice innovation techniques to develop solution ideas which are then trialled across Royal Perth Hospital as ‘small-scale prototype projects’.

“Studying social work provided the perfect springboard for me to embrace this model of problem-solving, having been comprehensively trained in person-centred practice. My education in social work taught me how to communicate with empathy, as well as the enormous value of co-design in social impact innovation.”

For someone who completed her master’s degree exams on Friday and was offered a job on Monday, we thought we’d ask Ashleigh for her tips on how to secure a job after uni.

“Firstly, don’t just look for jobs with your specific job title – many skills are transferable across industries and a diverse background might make you a stronger candidate for roles you never would have considered.”

“Be organised and don’t miss opportunities. Many graduate programs begin their recruitment processes early in the year. Make sure your résumé is up-to-date and mark closing dates in a calendar so you don’t miss out.”

If you’re interested in where social work can take you, explore social work courses at UWA.  


At UWA you can design your own degree. Learn about our range of courses and career options at an upcoming information session being held throughout July and August 2021. Explore our sessions and register today!


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