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TAFE Queensland Award nomination for inspiring student

[by Sarah Weir]


Image: supplied

TAFE Queensland graduate Neville Penny is using his training on the frontline to break down barriers and provide people in Townsville and Ayr with vital mental health support.


Mr Penny, 31, is a proud Aboriginal and South Sea Islander man who identifies with the Nywaigi Tribe of Crystal Creek, North of Townsville, and the Bundjalung people, located on the far north east coast of New South Wales and the southern eastern coast of Queensland, near Tweed Heads.


Mr Penny has worked in health care for more than a decade, and is particularly passionate about helping Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people navigate the complexities of the mental health sector.


Growing up, Mr Penny saw firsthand how kindness and the right support can change people’s lives.


“My Mum, Lena Watego, has been in community service work most of her life and this has had a significant influence on my own life,” Mr Penny said.


“Having been a foster carer for many years, my Mum opened our family home to Indigenous children, who I have come to know as my brothers and sisters.


“My Mum has been heavily involved in the Burdekin Area Youth Watch (BAYWatch) for the last 15 years in various jobs with the organisation, and, most recently, started her own driving school business.


“My Mum is a great role model for me and my brothers and sisters - she has shown us how to be successful in life and how to overcome challenges,” he said.


With such a strong foundation, Mr Penny, who works for Queensland Health, said his path was always set towards a career of helping others.


“I try to visit Ayr fortnightly to assist my Mum at BAYWatch, and I also volunteer with a Townsville men’s group, helping members find the support they need if they are struggling with mental health issues,” Mr Penny said.


“In my culture, there’s a lot of stigma attached to the work I do, but I believe I have become a trusted source of information and advice within my community.


“Many years ago, I tried to move away from the work I was doing with First Nations people to see if I made sense in another setting, but I didn’t.


“This work makes me feel connected, it’s what I enjoy and it’s what feels right to me - this is where I can really make a difference,” he said.


Mr Penny started his training journey with TAFE Queensland more than a decade ago, gaining three, backto-back certificates in alcohol and other drugs and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander primary health.


“After years working in industry, I decided to upskill and further my career by studying a dual award, enrolling in the Diploma of Mental Health and the Diploma of Alcohol and Other Drugs.”


But Mr Penny admits returning to study wasn’t without its challenges.

I had a fear of studying online but it was so much easier than I thought, particularly when I engaged the simple but effective strategies provided by my tutor and learning support mentor,” Mr Penny said.


“The empathy and understanding I received from everyone at TAFE Queensland helped me overcome obstacles during my training, including studying on top of a demanding full-time job, the birth of my first child, and the loss of loved ones,” he said.


Mr Penny said he uses his TAFE Queensland training every day, and that he received a promotion to a Senior Health Worker for Child and Youth Mental Health not long after finishing his studies.


“My training helped me gain a better understanding of the intricacies of the industry, cementing strategies and knowledge I had encountered but had no formalised training for,” Mr Penny said.


“I work with a team of nurses, social workers, occupational therapists, speech therapists, and psychiatrists, and I can effectively communicate with these professionals, particularly using industry-specific terms I learned during my course,” he said.


Mr Penny's commitment to his studies and industry, along with his willingness to return to TAFE Queensland to share his training and career journey with new students, has earned him recognition.


“I was surprised to learn that my dedication to my studies had been recognised by others when I received a regional Queensland Training Award nomination,” Mr Penny said.


“I feel proud to be a 2023 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Student of the Year finalist,” he said.


The winners of the North Queensland regional final of the Queensland Training Awards will be announced in Townsville on 29 July 2023.


TAFE Queensland enrolments for semester two are open now. To find out more about your training options, visit or call 1300 308 233.


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