Global Heels: Natasha Gorr Holt

February 23, 2014
Natasha Holt on her family farm in Barringo Valley, the foothills of Mount Macedon, Victoria, Australia.

Natasha Holt on her family farm in Barringo Valley, the foothills of Mount Macedon, Victoria, Australia.

Natasha Holt is a Duke-Rotary International Peace Fellow studying trauma healing and gender-based and sexual violence at UNC School of Social Work. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in media and gender studies from Monash University in Australia, and she is from the Barringo Valley in the foothills of Mount Macedon in Victoria, Australia.

Where are you from, and what is your country known for?

I am from Australia, the sunburnt country, home to one of the oldest living cultures in the world. The Aboriginal people of Australia have a rich culture stretching back more than 50,000 years. There are hundreds of Aboriginal nations in Australia and more than 100 languages spoken. Australia is an enormous country surrounded by ocean, making for a diverse ecology and environment that changes from coast to coast. Our wide open spaces are populated by people of many diverse backgrounds and indigenous animals such as kangaroos and koalas. Australia also hosts many of the world’s most deadly spiders and venomous snakes. The Australian countryside offers some truly beautiful flora and fauna.

Australian urban spaces are a rich mix of cultures and languages, interesting architecture, art and music. Cuisine incorporates the flavors of many other nations, as Australia has a long immigration history. We also have a national product called Vegemite, a salty yeast extract spread on toast. This is a product that Aussies will often stow away in their luggage on overseas trips. I have two jars at my house now.

What languages do you speak?

My mother tongue is English, but I also speak some Thai and Mandarin Chinese after spending time living in both countries and studying the languages at schools in Bangkok and Beijing.

Why did you choose to study in the United States? And why at UNC?

Duke-UNC hosts the only Rotary Peace Center in the U.S., and UNC was the only university that offered the kind of social work program that I was looking for. I had previously spent time travelling around the U.S. and the lifestyle in North Carolina appealed to me as a study destination. North Carolina is extremely diverse, with stunning mountains to the west, pristine beaches to the east and a whole lot of great trails close to home around Chapel Hill and Carrboro. The sumptuous BBQ found all across the state and the music of the South were two other huge draw cards for me. When I’m not studying, I like nothing more than to sit on a porch somewhere and listen to bluegrass, jazz, soul and blues. From the Carolinas all the way to Louisiana, I have been able to access performers that I would never get a chance to see back in Australia.

What unique perspectives do you feel you bring to your classrooms as an international student?

What I enjoy about being part of a wider community of international students is that we all share many different stories and experiences that can be shared with our American peers. I hope that, rather than just bringing an Australian perspective, I can be a part of a larger dialogue on global perspectives. I endeavor to bring my experiences from living in the Asia Pacific region into my classrooms. I also appreciate that many of my U.S. counterparts have lived in other countries too and can share their knowledge with me.

Which course at UNC have you enjoyed the most and why?

What I have enjoyed most about the social work program is the emphasis on practical learning. My most enjoyable experience last year was working as a social work intern at the UNC Horizons program for women. Whilst being supervised at the center and by a professor in the School of Social Work, I also participated in a group forum every couple of weeks with my peers. We were all placed in very different therapeutic settings and had the opportunity to discuss how our field placements were going, what challenges we had faced, and how we were navigating our way as new practitioners, which was a rewarding experience.

Tell us about a professor who has motivated you.

Last year I had a number of professors who were really amazing to work with. As someone pursuing a career in trauma healing, Michael Lambert, professor of social work at UNC, has been a particularly strong mentor and has provided me with much to think about in my practice as a social worker. I am now taking his second-year “Trauma and Violence” class.

What do you like best about UNC, and how is it different from universities in your home country?

The striking difference between my university in Australia and UNC is the amount of school spirit that is on display in Chapel Hill. I have noticed in my travels across the USA that the wearing of school colors (hoodies, t-shirts, etc.) is commonplace and representative of a large degree of school pride.

Also, though there are many beautiful university campuses in Australia, I really love the UNC campus grounds. Sometimes it’s nice to just wander around with my headphones in as I stroll through the arboretum on an autumn afternoon.

What do you like best about living in Chapel Hill, and how is it different from your hometown?

Though I have lived in big cities for most of my life — Melbourne, Beijing, Bangkok and Philadelphia — I grew up in a small rural village that had once been on the road to the gold fields of Australia. I have found that Carrboro reminds me a lot of where I grew up. The miners’ cottages have been replaced by mill cottages, the roads are wide, the trees are lush and we are a stone’s throw from farmland. What I like best about Carrboro is the strong community ties that I have formed in a fairly short time. I have found that the locals have welcomed me with wonderful Southern hospitality.

What have been the biggest challenges adjusting to life in Chapel Hill and as a student at UNC?

I arrived in unfamiliar territory with my bag over my shoulder and an open mind. Settling back into studies after an almost 10-year absence was a challenging process, but one that I have ultimately enjoyed. Sometimes my ‘Australianisms’ aren’t understood, but I have found people generally willing to try to interpret some of the differences in language and culture. Occasionally the accent difference is a challenge, but again I can’t help but think this is just another opportunity to connect with someone.

As a socialist and staunch feminist, I have had some trouble adjusting to the political climate in North Carolina. I have found some of the rhetoric around women’s bodies, sexual violence and access to services and care by our local homeless population deeply saddening. However, rather than feeling completely disheartened, the work of members from community-based organisations, student action groups and the interfaith communities fills me with profound hope and inspiration.  As someone who is committed to social inclusion and the promotion of peace, I feel privileged to be part of this collective voice and action.

If you could introduce student activities from your hometown to UNC students, what would they be?

My university was known for being particularly politically active. One somewhat infamous event was a student demonstration that resulted in multiple arrests and many disgruntled parents. I’m not sure I’d want to see this replicated at UNC. Besides, I think the Moral Monday protests have got it covered.

Why should international students consider attending UNC? What advice would you offer an incoming international student?

I believe that studying anywhere outside of your home country can be a really rewarding experience in which you can learn in and out of the classroom. Being surrounded by different perspectives and people provides an opportunity for rich socio-cultural experiences. UNC offers great programs and a unique living experience. I would advise anyone moving to a new place to develop a support network, as it can be isolating navigating an unfamiliar environment. Engaging in local activities and events at UNC really helps international students to feel part of the community.

What are you currently reading?

I was in Philadelphia last week and picked up a book on the Riot Grrrl movement, a feminist movement heavily linked to a female-centered music scene and subculture that included the production of fan zines, the DIY ethic, art, political action and activism. As a self-identified riot grrrl, I was excited by my find. It’s a much needed distraction from reading about trauma and violence.