Rowena Rayner arrived at Griffith University in 2010 with a first-class honours degree in accounting in her bag, and eager to take the next step – a PhD investigating how Australian firms voluntarily disclose details of their practices around carbon emissions.
Associate Professor Reza Monem was lecturing in financial accounting at Griffith Business School, and was ideally placed to supervise Rowena’s research project.
Rowena was 84% hearing impaired and relied heavily on visual clues, facial expressions and lip reading besides the use of hearing aids to understand when others communicated with her.
She was a native of Queensland; Reza had grown up in Bangladesh with Bengali his first language.
“Hearing loss is a communications barrier. It has nothing to do with a person’s intelligence,” Rowena says. “But if a person is not hearing the information in the first place, it can lead to a negative reflection on them.
“It’s a bit like when the punchline of a joke has to be explained to a child. Unless someone explains something to me, I don’t automatically pick it up. I need a little bit of extra context or I’m in danger of missing the point.”
For each meeting in Reza’s office on the Nathan campus, Rowena would focus on Reza’s lip movements, as well as listen to him using hearing aids. Reza would slow his delivery of words to an unaccustomed velocity.
“Conversation is all about rhythm, especially in the case of the English language,” Rowena says.
“If a word is missed when talking in English, it can be substituted relatively easily because of the rhythm. Therefore the meaning is not lost. In Reza I was dealing with a gentleman for whom English is a second language. Thus, at times, the rhythms were rendered redundant.
“Reza needed to learn how to interact with me. I often needed visual clues or something rephrased if I couldn’t pick it up. So he needed to have a lot of patience, which I appreciated.”
On this arrangement a beautiful academic relationship was forged which will culminate this afternoon (Friday) when Rowena graduates at a Griffith University ceremony at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre.
In the audience will be her eldest child Rachael who is also hearing impaired and who is also completing her own PhD in the field of microbiology at QUT.
When Rowena made the decision to do a degree in accounting 14 years ago, Rachael was at primary school. The resulting journey has been long and not without its challenges – Rowena was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006 – but the journey is one she is happy to have travelled.
“The education experience has been extremely important to me,” Rowena (57) says. “I took a little longer than my daughter. Rachael was able to access facilities not available to me during my formative years in school.
“If someone in a situation like mine has the desire and the interest and the opportunity to continue on, regardless of what other people around them feel, I would encourage them to do so. Unfortunately, people might sometimes have lower expectations of them because they are physically challenged.”
Exploring, analysing and debating the minute details of her research was enormously challenging for both Rowena and Reza and pushed the supervisor-student relationship into unfamiliar ground between March 2010 and December 2014, when she submitted Rowena submitted her thesis.
“Reza needed to learn how to interact with me,” she says. “I often needed visual clues or something rephrased if I couldn’t pick it up. So he needed to have a lot of patience, which I appreciated. I had to learn to understand his facial expressions.”
Rowena, who lives at Murrumba Downs, effectively set the agenda for each meeting in Reza’s office on Griffith’s Nathan campus. In each meeting she would focus on Reza’s face for speech clues as well as listen to him using hearing aids, and he would slow his word delivery to an unaccustomed velocity.
Reza had to learn to give the student 100% undivided attention and to understand that Rowena’s needs were different to those of others. Conversations on standard telephones were not possible. Important words were always written down, as were key sentences. Rowena took notes, recording the minutes of each meeting which she would later type up and email to Reza for verification.
This arrangement became the frame of reference on which her research was structured.
“It taught me to be more patient and to appreciate what obstacles are in front of students who are physically challenged,” Associate Professor Monem says.
“We travelled a long journey together and my role became one of support. It rose above the standard supervisor-research student relationship. I communicated to Rowena that I was there for her, so she should not stress out.”
This personal commitment was integral to the progress of Rowena’s research. As a tedious and exacting workload started to mount up, and she struggled with the work-study-life balance, Reza advised and guided her on the management of her time on all fronts.
“I felt I had a moral obligation. I told her ‘This is your time’.”
Her time has come and this afternoon (Friday, 3pm) Rowena Rayner will savour the moment when her name is called and she takes to the graduation stage to become Dr Rowena Rayner.