career change

Changing careers midlife and realising a dream

At the age of 42 Michelle Zarb gathered 20 seconds of courage and decided to make a dramatic career change. She had left school midway through Year 11 and spent her working life in the retail sector. But her dream was to become a psychologist.

Because, as long as Michelle remembers, she wanted to help. To make a difference in the world and give back to the community.

“Even when I was 10 or so I was an avid reader and would go to second-hand bookstores and come home with old psychology text books. I have always wanted to help people, and in Year 11 – because I wasn’t aware of social work specifically – psychology was the way I saw of doing that. Becoming a psychologist was how I was going to make a difference.

“Nobody I knew, no one in my family, extended family or networks had ever been to university. So, I wasn’t exposed to the different degrees available.”

Life takes an unexpected turn

On track to tackle the Higher School Certificate and realise her dream, Michelle’s life was about to take an unexpected turn.

“Halfway through Year 11, when I was 16, life intervened and a family situation meant I decided to leave school. It was my way of coping and regaining control.”

She set aside her aspirations to become a psychologist and picked up a full-time job in a bank. But her dream never really died – it was always simmering on the side. 

“The fire was burning away in the background. I just never had the support to reconnect with my original goal.”

For the next couple of decades Michelle concentrated on being a wife and mother and held a part-time job in a bottlo.

A little courage and a big change

Fast forward to 2011, and Michelle was ready to regain control of her future and begin helping to create a world worth living in.

“At 42 I decided that I had spent my life working in places that held no interest for me. They gave me nothing but a pay check.”

“I decided on changing careers midlife and worked towards educating myself so that I could work with vulnerable and marginalised people in my community.”

A chat with a TAFE careers counsellor encouraged her to try an outreach program. And it was right up her alley.

“It was an introduction to community services on one day and an introduction to children’s services on another. Today it would be known as a Certificate II in Community Services.”

For the next six months Michelle’s course was full of interesting subjects and guest speakers, and it reignited her drive.

“Within two weeks I knew this was what I wanted to do. Absolutely. So, I signed up for a Cert IV in Community Services.”

Partway through the 12-month Cert IV, a lecturer encouraged Michelle to try volunteering in the industry. It helped her get a ‘foot in the door’, meant she gained valuable experience and ultimately led to a job offer. Two, actually.

“I found myself working at the bottle shop, working two casual jobs in the industry, studying full-time and raising a teenager.”

Career change turns Michelle’s life around

By the time 2014 was wrapping up Michelle had completed a Diploma in Community Services and was working in the sector – finally able to give back to her community.

“Within a two-year period my life had completely turned around. I’d gone from working in retail to being a casual case worker helping young people and homeless people. Then I got a full-time job with Carrie’s Place, a specialist domestic violence and homelessness service. And I just loved what I was doing.

“I couldn’t believe what I had achieved, but I was also exhausted.

“I had kept in contact with my first TAFE teacher, Liz, and we became friends. Back in 2011 she said to me, ‘you’ll go to uni one day and get a degree’ and I just laughed and said, ‘no way, that won’t happen’. And by the time I got the Diploma in Community Services I was done. But Liz wasn’t! Every time I bumped into her in the sector she’d always ask me, ‘when are you going to uni?’

“I had toyed with the idea of doing social work when changing careers midlife – but I was still content to use fatigue and the cost of uni as excuses.”

Industry gets all shook up – it’s time to futureproof your career

Around this time the homelessness sector went through massive reforms, where the government completely changed how they allocated funding.

“It really shook up the whole sector. Organisations were defunded and people started to look for new jobs. All of a sudden there was a whole lot of us looking for work. What we all noticed was, before the funding change most case work positions were minimum entry level with a diploma. Afterwards, all the new job ads said the minimum entry level was a degree or experience in the sector and a willingness to work towards a degree.

“To me the sector was taking the opportunity to raise the bar. And I knew I had to seriously think about going to uni to futureproof my career.”

“People in the sector could stay where they were or move sideways. But they would not be able to move into higher grades or even move up a pay level. Without a degree there would be no career progression and my capacity to earn would be limited.”

Charles Sturt helps Michelle find her path for changing careers midlife

The good news was Michelle found herself surrounded by inspirational people who encouraged her to gather her courage and give university a try.

“People older than me said they got a degree in their late 30s while raising children – so I should be able to do it. But I didn’t even know you could do a degree online! And I couldn’t conceive how people went to campus and managed to work.”

A co-worker jumped onto Charles Sturt University’s website and explained that Michelle had already completed some components of a degree.

“I said ‘what?’ It turned out Charles Sturt recognised my TAFE diploma and, ultimately, my sector experience as well.”

Michelle enrolled in a social welfare undergraduate degree, working full-time and studying part-time as an online student.

“The online degree was very challenging and required a great deal of discipline and motivation. Carrie’s Place supported me with study leave, time off for exams, resources and I was able to reduce my working hours after the first semester. I used Charles Sturt’s online planner and realised I could smash out a three-year degree in two years if I did summer semesters. So, I did!”

This is so happening! And career change doors started to open

Michelle refers to her ‘two lives’: one prior to study and one post study. And she has absolutely no regrets.

“So much has changed. My life before is what I call my ‘past life’.

“In terms of my career path, this degree absolutely opened many more doors and led to a greater earning capacity. And it helped me get to where I’m meant to be. I have found my place in the world and that wouldn’t have happened without study.”

“In terms of my self-esteem, this degree was a wonderful, wonderful thing for me. I don’t think I realised, until I graduated, how much I had been holding onto the fact that I hadn’t finished the Higher School Certificate.

“It was funny because a lot of the distance students were never keen to go to their graduation ceremony. I was the complete opposite. From day one I was like, ‘I am walking across that stage. That is so happening!’”

And it did – on August 22, 2017.

“People ask what I did at uni and the sense of pride I have when I say it – I can’t begin to explain. I think ‘what an achievement’.”

For Michelle, a little courage and some study led to changing careers midlife – and finally a sense of fulfilment. Today, the Barnardos Australia case manager  helps make life better for children and families.

“I work with children who are in the child protection system or children who are in statutory care. And I go to work every single day and I’m making a difference. I’m giving back.”

Ready to make a career change – and make a difference?

If you’ve ever wanted to make a difference in a career you’re passionate about, you can with us. It’s your time. Changing careers midlife? You’ve got this.

Charles Sturt’s wide range of courses will give you the skills and industry knowledge you need to be the change you want to see in the world. We’ll also help you to get ready for uni life and get your study skills in tip-top shape.

And because more Charles Sturt grads get jobs faster than grads from any other university in Australia*, you’ll be able to realise your dream, get qualified and land a job you’ll love really soon! Find out how we can help – contact us and let’s get the ball rolling!

*The Good Universities Guide 2022/23