At the beginning of her final semester, Juris Doctor graduate Rachael Grivas found out that she had breast cancer. Faced with surgery, then months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, she would have been forgiven for putting her studies aside for a year or two. But, she says, finishing her law degree, having a goal that was unrelated to surviving cancer, turned out to be an essential distraction.
Being able to study during that time, to write those essays, and prepare for the exams meant that I had something else to think about other than breast cancer. And that was really important,” she said.
Not everyone understood her desire keep studying, including her lecturers at the ANU College of Law, who knew the challenge associated with completing a law degree under the best circumstances.
There are great challenges in both completing a law degree, and fighting cancer,” said Shane Drumgold, lecturer and assistant director of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Addressing these challenges together is unimaginable.
At first I thought it was unwise, given the size of the battle Rachael had on her hands with her cancer diagnosis, but her determination soon became apparent and all I could do was support her decision.”
Dr Heather Roberts was also in awe of Rachael’s commitment even before the diagnosis.
I think many students assume that lecturers at the front of Coombs Lecture Theatre can’t tell when students are engaged – we can, and I always appreciated that Rachael was clearly ‘switched on’,” she said.
Rachael is such an inspiration, and I feel truly fortunate that our paths have crossed. To finish a law degree, under ‘ordinary’ circumstances is an incredible achievement, and one that should be celebrated. To complete the degree after a diagnosis like Rachael’s, and at every stage to have remained positive and encouraging to those around her, is simply extraordinary.”
Time for a change
An economics graduate, Rachael’s career in economic development took her to India, Bangladesh and Thailand before she settled in Canberra with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. A decade later she decided to pursue a long-held interest in law.
I’d always been interested in helping people and making a contribution, and I knew that my contribution would be through writing and language,” she said.
I started helping family and friends navigate their dealings with businesses, as consumers. I realised that it was a really direct way to help people, that I was good at it, and that I enjoyed figuring out the steps I needed to take to get a good outcome for them.”
The combination of proximity and reputation made ANU College of Law an “obvious choice” for Rachael.
There are some fabulous folks at the law school and it was just a really rich learning experience,” she said.
I previously studied at universities in Australia and the UK and while there were exceptional individuals, it was across the board at ANU.”
She learned just how exceptional her lecturers could be after telling them she wanted to complete her degree despite her diagnosis.
I was enrolled in four subjects and I when contacted my lecturers we arranged to stick with the two compulsory subjects, and complete the two electives over the summer holidays,” she said.
There were people at ANU who just went above and beyond to help me out. Dr Heather Roberts, Associate Professor Pauline Ridge, Associate Professor Molly Townes O’Brien, Judith Jones, Professor Michael Coper, and Shane Drumgold all cheered me on and always made sure that I had everything that I needed to do the best that I could.”
A/Professor Townes O’Brien didn’t see her own part as above and beyond, noting Rachael’s work ethic was the key element to her success.
To me, it seemed that she asked very little and was always extraordinarily grateful for any timeline or marking concession,” she said.
I did very little to help her. She helped herself. I was amazed that she kept coming back with assignments, even during her chemotherapy.
I was impressed by her work and by her work ethic. She is an outstanding person, cancer or no cancer. I would support her efforts always.”
Professor Michael Coper, who was dealing with his own cancer diagnosis, said he very much understood the challenge she faced to cut through the pain and anxiety and to focus on her studies.
Rachael is to be much admired for this, and for the positive attitude she was able to maintain that will continue to hold her in good stead,” he said.
I wish her all the very best for the future.”
Back to work therapy
Rachael was working part-time as a paralegal at Clayton Utz and was due to join their graduate program the following year when she found out about the cancer. She had to stop working in order to manage her treatment and the study, but she was able to return and begin the graduate program in March.
I called that back-to-work therapy,” she said.
It was a really positive experience. I reached out to Clayton Utz as soon as I was diagnosed and their position was always ‘let us know what you need but don’t feel obliged to do anything’.
They also put me in touch with their counselling service and many colleagues reached out, particularly those who had themselves been affected by cancer. At the time I was still getting to know my colleagues but I know them well now and that’s largely because of their support.”
She also said her managers at Clayton Utz placed her in a team whose flexible work practices could adapt to her treatment regime.
I started with Clayton Utz while I was still receiving chemotherapy and continued during radiation which was a daily treatment for me,” she said.
They set me up so that I was able to do that and they made it clear that there was no pressure, that my priority was my health.
They were amazing.”
The ANU Juris Doctor (online) is uniquely designed for part-time students seeking to study online with one of the world’s top-ranked law schools. The ANU Juris Doctor (online) allows students with a non-law Australian bachelor degree, or international equivalent, to gain the academic qualification needed for a career in law, legal practice and related sectors.
This post is proudly sponsored by the Australian National University College of Law.