Maria Cotter, UNE, Great Cycle Challenge, fighting children's cancer

The Great Cycle Challenge, Maria Cotter

Our team recently learned about the awesome cause Maria Cotter, PhD student, staff member, and Alumna, is supporting. She has dedicated the month of October to cycle 1,000km raising money to fight kids’ cancer. Cancer is the largest killer of children from disease in Australia, and as Maria believes, we agree,  “kids should be living life, not fighting for it”.

She is now halfway through her challenge, and we wanted to share a part of her story with you, including her passion behind this event. All funds raised will support the Children’s Medical Research Institute to develop treatments and find cures for childhood cancers.

How did you get involved in this brilliant cause?

Well, firstly, I have recently purchased a second-hand road bike from my sister, Margie. About five years ago, Margie had been incredibly active doing 30 and 40-kilometre bike rides each weekend and enjoying her life and then she developed a complicated auto-immune disease that means she has endured much pain and progressively lost her mobility such that she now needs an electric wheelchair to move about freely. Her bike was sitting downstairs at her home getting rusty, and she was sick of it reminding her of what she could no longer do. The bike is light and a dream to ride so I agreed to buy it from her. I did and she sent it and all her riding kit by courier to me. It had been a while since the bike arrived and I was starting to feel guilty that it was sitting in the shed and I was not using it very much, especially when unlike my sick sister I am healthy and mobile.

Hence, when I first saw an advertisement for the Great Cycle Challenge on a friends Facebook newsfeed, I thought getting involved would be a great motivation to start riding my bike! Of course, too, like most people, my family has been affected by cancer and I understand the difficulty for individuals and families in maintaining hope and dignity when a cancer diagnosis interrupts every day and challenges the very lives of those you love. Then, as I was deciding my first very modest kilometre and fundraising goal, a long-term family friend wrote to tell me that her not-quite 2-year-old grandson had been rushed to John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle to be treated for an aggressive cancer. I thought especially of the disruption for their entire family and although I might offer ‘thoughts and prayers’’ decided I would do something practical and offer all my kilometres and fundraising efforts to help fight kids cancer and especially support those country kids like little Jimmy that have to spend many months away from their homes seeking treatment for cancer. It is not much really, but it is the least I could do to show my support for those caring people in my community that have been there for me when I really needed them.

Whoa, we’re so touched by this! Where will you be riding?

I have set a target of riding 1000km in the month of October and raising at least $2000 for the Children’s Medical Research Institute. To date, I have ridden over 500 kilometres (yes, I am halfway there!) and raised almost $1500. I will be riding up and down and around the various country lanes, tarred roadways and bike-tracks about Armidale, and further afield. Beware the crazy bike lady! 😄 Last Saturday I managed to ride from Armidale to Uralla, then on to Kentucky and Wollun. I had hoped to get to Walcha but after 96 kilometres (and several rest stops) that ‘one last big hill’ was just a little too far…It was my longest ride ever. In fact, in the last 20 days, I have ridden a few personal bests in terms of road distance; and if that is what it takes to raise funds to help kids enduring cancer, I will keep on doing so over the next 10 days or so too.

This is so impressive! 

You work as the Academic Project Officer at Oorala Aboriginal Centre – can you tell us a little about your role and what it entails?

I am part of the dedicated team of staff at the Oorala Aboriginal Centre who work to provide academic, cultural and social support to the more than 1,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Students who choose to study at UNE.

My role is a varied one, including providing hands-on support to staff and students as required as well as undertaking various project work in support of the Academic Program Staff and/or Student Experience Team. In the past couple of years, I have had the privilege of preparing the report to the Federal Government about the wonderful work my colleagues at Oorala and others across UNE are doing to encourage and inspire Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to achieve their academic and life goals.

For me, working at Oorala has turned out to be one of the most enjoyable jobs I have done in my varied career.

This is a result of the fact that I work with a friendly and caring group of colleagues, who have an abundance of team spirit, and are oozing commitment for helping our Indigenous students achieve their aspirations.  The opportunity afforded me to participate in the Indigenous Sashing Ceremonies held in the Oorala Aboriginal Centre prior to each on campus graduation (in a non-COVID world of course) is a real highlight of the job. The cultural identity and academic success of our Indigenous students is acknowledged by the presence of the UNE executive at these short ceremonies, and the colour and joy of our graduands celebrating with their families is a delight to experience.

How long have you worked with or been involved with UNE?

I first came to UNE as a student in the Mid 1980s. I grew up in Central West NSW and at the end of High School received an Auscott Scholarship to attend University and my University of choice was UNE. I resided in St Albert’s College in my first year, and like many others who have had the college experience, I forged life-long friendships as a result. My undergraduate studies at UNE included botany, geography and Aboriginal archaeology and it is these subjects that formed the basis of my first post-graduate studies and subsequent career. I returned to UNE in 2002 as a Research Fellow working on an ARC Discovery Project held by now Emeritus Professor Iain Davidson documenting the traditional, historical, and contemporary ecological knowledge held by Aboriginal people of north-west NSW. This was an amazing opportunity and learning experience. Subsequently, I held public sector and private sector roles in Aboriginal cultural heritage regulation and management, mainly in NSW. Of note, I worked with Native Title Claimants in the NSW Hunter Valley assisting them to record their cultural heritage values in the face of mining development. Whilst I really enjoyed working with the community, I was increasingly distressed by how little of the actual heritage values of these Native Title Claimants was and could be protected in the development process. This led me to a life and career decision to return to UNE to undertake further study… and so I applied and returned to undertake my PhD in Creative Writing Practice (part-time) in 2017.

You’re incredibly busy! Can you tell us a little bit more about your PhD?

I am studying a PhD in Creative Practice with a focus on the poetics of carbon. I am interested in the science and art of carbon and on exploring the nexus between these through poetry. At a time where the rhetoric of ‘carbon-tax’, ‘carbon-footprints’ and ‘carbon-offsets’ has cast Carbon as one of the preeminent evil in our times I want to explore the nuance and realities of Carbon, as element, as compound and as matter.

That sounds really complex – we’re excited to see where this takes you!

What’s the most exciting thing you’ve experienced whilst doing your PhD at UNE?

Firstly, my research project sits at the margins between science and the humanities and UNE has a strong reputation in researching both within and between these margins and, in particular of making valued and applied contributions to environmental humanities scholarship. Secondly, I am an alumna of this University and I value and appreciate the full gamut of cultural, social and academic experiences it has afforded me thus far. For me, the recent opportunities I have had to attend symposia with delegates from across the Pacific and listen to these brilliant and passionate creative scholars report on their research has been intellectually exciting and personally inspirational.

Whilst studying which skills have you learned or developed that you didn’t expect?

The confidence and ability to speak in public about my research, and indeed teach aspects of my learnings to others is something that I would never have thought possible in High School. I literally was that person who froze when delivering a speech to a class of her peers… and was escorted to the Principal’s office when I refused to continue…

What does a regular day look like for you? How do you manage your work + study + life balance?

I am not sure I have a ‘regular day’!  I have learned that the key for me in managing my stress levels and time is to have a general daily framework of tasks but to remain flexible so as to be able to address issues and/or adjust my schedule as things arise. In addition, and after some serious mental health issues, in the past 5 or so years, I have developed an absolute passion in the sport of rowing. The Armidale Rowing Club rows on Malpas Dam and I have experienced the luxury and abundant birdlife of dam full conditions and the stark reality of exposed trees and banks at the recent record lows. Whatever the water and weather conditions though I enjoy the physical beauty as viewed from the dam. It is a magical spot and I feel very lucky and privileged to be able to enjoy this beautiful regional recreational resource.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to any aspiring students?

I am an unabashed believer in the concept of and capacity for life-long learning. So for aspiring students, I would say always have the confidence to try something new! Trying doesn’t mean success first or every time but in each attempt, you always learn something about yourself that can be used next time.

Maria, thank you so much for your time! You are truly inspiring, we are so incredibly proud to have you as part of our community. If you are able to support Maria on her huge mission of support you can donate to the Great Cycle Challenge here!