Study

Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright@ Australian Catholic University 1998-2019 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS Reg: 00004G

Kristina Zillhardt on a city street smiling at the camera

Living her best life


Kristina Zillhardt’s story could have been very different. Raised by her paternal grandparents while her mother, a child of the Stolen Generation, struggled with the effects of displacement from family, it would have been easy to continue the cycle of intergenerational trauma. Kristina decided to take another path and help others to change their lives.

“I was very lucky my grandparents decided to take me on when I was a baby. I had a pretty normal life with them,” she said.

Even with a stable childhood, Kristina was still aware of the trauma suffered by her mother and maternal grandmother as part of the Stolen Generation.

“My mum was fostered, but did know who her mother was. My grandmother could visit her, but due to alcoholism and mental health issues it didn’t work out.”

Later Kristina’s mother also turned to alcohol to deal with her suffering, and for a time she was sleeping rough in Sydney. Yet she and Kristina maintained a strong bond and kept in contact.

“As a teenager I spent time visiting Mum when she was living in situations that were difficult to witness. She exposed me to homelessness and good people who were short of luck or struggling with drug and alcohol issues. She exposed me to things that made me want to learn how to help others live their best life,” she said.

Making changes

Awareness of the issues driving people to homelessness and drug and alcohol dependency set her on a path to help others. After school she completed a Diploma in Community Welfare at TAFE and spent a decade helping people with disabilities connect with their community and thrive. Now, aged 29, she’s made the brave decision to follow that dream further and has begun a Bachelor of Nursing at ACU.

Kristina Zillhardt working at the computer

“All my friends are getting married and having babies and I feel like the black sheep. But I know this is good for me in the long run, there are lots of career opportunities,” she said.

“I’m excited to get the qualification and become a registered nurse and see where it’s going to take me: who I’m going to help, save, heal and inspire.”

Kristina is the first to admit her desire for education came later in life.

“I had a good upbringing, and my grandparents gave me lots of opportunities, but for me school was more a social place as an only child. I played a lot of sport. It was my outlet for the frustration and anger I had about wishing I could be with Mum and Dad as a happy family. I didn’t really think about education at the time.”

If Kristina lacked academic motivation in high school, she is more than making up for it now, grabbing every opportunity that comes her way. 

Still in the first year of her degree, she has already received a scholarship, an internship opportunity in the Northern Territory and a job as a Student Ambassador. Early next year she’ll take up another internship in rural New South Wales.

“I was really surprised at the opportunities that are available at ACU, it’s so much more than reading books and taking exams, you just have to put your hand up,” she said.

Her scholarship, courtesy of St John of God Health Care, has given her financial stability during her degree.

“It’s really helpful, especially as a mature age student, to have extra financial support for things you need to pay for at university,” she said.

But for Kristina, the best part of the scholarship is the paid work at the hospital.

“St John of God is a mental health hospital and I’ve learnt useful skills, like how to read the demeanour of a person and how to interact with them while they’re going through a difficult time. It’s going to be something else I can bring to my work as a nurse when I graduate.”

Heading to the top

During the university winter break Kristina found herself practicing in a completely different environment during a one-month internship at Danila Dilba Health Service in Darwin. This Aboriginal community-run organisation provides culturally-appropriate health care with clinics around the city, but also in mobile clinics that search out patients where they're camped.

Fireworks on the beach  in Darwin

Kristina found herself cruising around in a 4WD down bush tracks and hidden places in the city looking for patients. It was, she said, an eye-opening way of providing care.

You find a camp, have a yarn, see how they’re going and what they need. It’s not a quick interaction,” she said. 

Kristina found more than just patients, she found connections to country.

“You’re seeing these communities where dreamtime stories are still active, they’re still law. You can’t touch certain water. You understand why there’s a certain flower around. At one camp they were cooking a long-necked turtle on the fire and showed me how to break it up and what’s good to eat and what’s not.”


"The majority of the staff at Danila Dilba are Aboriginal too, so just being around what I’ve missed a lot of my life was really important to me. As soon as I’m with Aboriginal people I’m calm and I feel safe.”

Kristina Zillhardt with Danila Dilba nurse

Kristina with a Danila Dilba nurse, Darwin

Connecting on campus

Back in North Sydney she’s also finding connections to her Aboriginal heritage through Yalbalinga, ACU’s Indigenous Higher Education Unit. Yalbalinga provides academic and social support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students as well as creating an environment that promotes positive First People identity.

“I’m not good with words or writing essays, so they provided me with a tutor for extra support. They also gave me a position as a Student Ambassador which has been a real opportunity to grow and to step out of my comfort zone,” she said.

“A big part of this journey for me is believing in myself, that I can do it and I am good enough. Sometimes I feel like I’m not. Just having that extra support from Yalbalinga helps. They’ve been so special while I’ve been here.”

Yalbalinga has also encouraged her and her mother to make connections with their family.

“One of the things we’ve achieved this year is getting in contact with LinkUp, which is a service for people of the Stolen Generation to get in touch with their family. ACU encouraged me to help my mother be a part of that service and connect.”

Not only is nursing a path to a challenging, hands on career, but also a way to find connections to the past that she, her mother, and her mother’s mother had taken from them.

“Healing is like a spiritual journey, and I’m finding what we missed. This isn’t just about learning from text books. I’m learning from all the people I’m meeting along the way.”

 Want to help others live their best life like Kristina? Find out more about studying a Bachelor of Nursing at ACU.

Related stories

Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright@ Australian Catholic University 1998-2019 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS Reg: 00004G