Cara Dohnalek’s aunty taught her to embrace her difference. Cara did, and she hasn’t looked back since.
The Townsville native studied mathematics and science at high school, as well as Visual Arts. Her subject choices could’ve led her down the path of pursuing medicine or engineering at university, but engineering didn’t spark anything for her. And growing up with a physiotherapist mother and a surgeon father, she wanted to get as far from the health field as possible.
“I wanted to be different and follow my passions – art and maths,” Cara says.
So it was that Cara came to the Australian National University, where she’ll be graduating with a Bachelor of Visual Arts majoring in Painting and a Bachelor of Finance majoring in Quantitative Finance.
“The fact that at ANU I could combine two completely opposite degrees was a perk,” Cara says. “That's why I applied.”
At ANU, she continued her streak as a high achieving student, winning the Bruce Hall Academic Award for the highest grades of College of Arts & Social Sciences first years in 2017. She got involved in campus life through Bruce Hall and Wamburun Hall, participating in sporting events, the arts society, and mentoring students – including as a Senior Resident – making friends and lifelong memories along the way.
“There are so many people from so many different walks of life with different degrees,” says Cara. “That’s one of the great things about ANU: everyone is so different and so wacky in their own way and you can learn so much from them and what they do.”
At the end of her first year, tragedy struck. Her aunty, who had been her best friend, died after a long battle with cancer. And then last year, as the pandemic raged, Cara’s father suddenly passed away.
It took two flights and a 17 hour drive from Brisbane to Townsville to get home. Once there, she had to put her grief aside.
“I had to plan my dad's funeral – and I was 21 at the time – and take care of my younger brothers, take care of mum,” Cara says. “But the beautiful thing about my mother and dad is that they grew the biggest community in Townsville. The house was never empty for weeks.”
After Cara returned to Canberra and began the new semester, she realized she wasn’t coping. She applied for an Education Access Plan (EAP). Through the EAP, the ANU made accommodations for Cara’s circumstances and offered the support she needed to continue doing her best academically.
“I'm a hard worker so I don't try to take the easy way out or anything,” Cara says. “I sent my lecturers my EAP and they were so supportive.”
She made it through the rest of her double degree and is pleased with the results she earned. She’s very excited about graduating.
“I'm ready to move on, to experience new things. I'm ready to learn in a very different environment, and I'm ready to apply what I've learned at uni.”
During her time at ANU, Cara worked at 180 Degrees Consulting and was awarded as an Outstanding Consultant. She’s now working full time at the Canberra Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (CAPS) Clinic in executive support and project management.
The fact that she’s found herself in the health sector having previously been adamant about avoiding it, is an irony that’s not lost on her. It’s a role she’s been enjoying immensely though, and she was actually hired for the skills she honed in both her degrees.
“I was brought in because I had both that business side and that creative side,” Cara says.
She currently heads up the visual assets team: “It's not just marketing, because it includes our external, internal and affiliate branding. So I lead that team.”
What Cara learned through her Bachelor of Visual Arts has been useful to both her current job as well as arming her with the right skills and knowledge for her career ambitions.
“My giant goal for down the track is I want to be on the c-suite of a company,” Cara says. “I love that creative aspect of building a brand and building the visual identity because that’s what our society is now – we're very visual. So the Bachelor of Visual Arts has definitely taught me a lot including the importance of visual iconography and symbolism, colours; everything to do with it and how important it is to target audiences and stuff like that.”
She also credits her Visual Arts degree with the writing skills she now has and finds so valuable.
“That's one of the great things about the Bachelor of Visual Arts: you learn to formulate articles and persuade a reader. And especially through Art History and Theory, you learn creative languages and visual languages,” Cara says. “If you're trying to sell someone and pitch something, you've got to have that. So I think it's definitely equipped me quite well.”
In reflecting on her time at ANU, Cara thinks about the advice she’s been giving her younger brother, who is studying in Queensland.
“I've been telling my little brother how important it is to get experience outside of university,” she says. “Expanding your experience with people, learning from other people, listening.”
In addition to listening, Cara is acutely aware of the power of talking and being open.
‘My aunty wrote a letter for me that I have,” Cara says. “And one of the things that she wrote was There is beauty in vulnerability. That’s just how I live. That's what I want to do.”
Written by Evana Ho