Interviewed by Veronica Farmer
Images kindly supplied by the University of Newcastle
I grew up in Tamworth, living with my Mum and Step-Dad. We were very poor, and it was not a particularly easy environment in which to thrive. My sister left home at 12 years old, and for a time she was homeless, and that brought a huge amount of concern and anxiety into the family wondering where she was and if she was okay. When she came back, some the people she brought into the house, made it a frightening place. Rage and violence were happening around me. I was living in a community where crime and drug use was fairly common, and I could see the damage it had on their families. I didn’t want a part of it or to get into trouble. This left me with an ingrained sense of being different.
I was an introverted and shy kid and was sent across town, to go to school in a wealthy area. I would have been about six or seven years old when two teachers pulled me aside to tell me that I had to do something about washing my clothes and dealing with my hygiene. I didn’t know how to do those things; I'd never learned. Young kids pick up on that stuff and were pretty mean about it. We didn’t have a washing machine at home, and it was a miracle that I made it to school as much as I did. I only went to school about 50% of the time. I really struggled to stay engaged.
My mother had some physical disabilities, so working was just not an option for her. She struggled, and I would have been about ten years old when she was asking my advice about which bills we should pay and which we just had to leave. Life was incredibly stressful for everyone. I ended up leaving school when I was 13 years old just after my Nan had passed away
One of my grandmother’s friends, an Elder who was one of the only people we knew who had been to university, came over for an hour a week every Wednesday and taught me maths. This began when I was just out of kindergarten. My grandmother arranged it as she always believed in me and was very supportive of my education. She could see that education would give me a ticket into a better life. When she was a child, forty years ago, she was not allowed to go and play out on the street, since she was Aboriginal and the government could just come and take her from her home. Her support of me and giving me a taste of learning outside of the school system, ignited my joy for maths from a very young age.
I went to TAFE, a training school for a year and found that I was excelling in maths. They were not able to support me to learn further, as I was already two levels above what they were able to teach. That was hard as I was finally finding something that I was good at, but there didn’t seem to be any option to grow. I was incredibly frustrated by not being fed what I needed to learn. Along with that was an undercurrent of trauma and stress that was near boiling point. After leaving TAFE, I came home and spent three months in a really bad way. I understand now that I was suffering from PTSD. During that time I couldn’t sleep, I was constantly crying and had severe depression.
After this low period, I returned to school when I was 15 years old, in Year 10. This time, I went to a local school nearby. It was a more familiar environment, and I was back at school by choice, and that gave me a sense of strength. For the first time I saw school as a place of learning rather than bullying, and I wanted to suck up every bit of knowledge I could!
I had a great history teacher who got my background. She was very supportive, and I enjoyed learning with her. She helped me see how it can take just one teacher with a few positive comments to make a difference in a kid’s life. I think that is why I am so passionate these days about working with and supporting young people in their learning. I love seeing the fire in their eyes when they see what could be possible if they just believe in themselves. Before the last year of school, my mother moved out of town, and I had the choice to go with her and leave school or find a way to stay. I stayed with family for the first six months, but then had to spend the last few months of Year 12, couch surfing. It was hard and my grades suffered, but I am glad I stuck it out. School became my safe place. The teachers could see I had a gift for learning and I was encouraged to go to University and get out of Tamworth.
I was the first in my family to graduate university, and also the first Indigenous Australian in New South Wales to complete a double degree in maths and physics. While many see this as a remarkable achievement for me, it’s the reverse − I should be the 500th! I want to help lead the way for other Indigenous people and show they can achieve anything. The University of Newcastle was a fantastic new home for me, a place where I was able to make some good friends and garner strength in my identity. I came out of my shell.
It was an unusual environment at first. I was one of only a few women in a male dominated field of study, sitting alongside students who had all been to private schools, most of them still living at home with supportive parents helping them out. At times that made me wonder if I belonged there, and then I saw the great gift of who I was and the scars of my life that had put me smack in the middle of that world. I was truly at University because everything in me wanted to be there. I was at home when I was learning, and this was a place that could feed my hungry mind that had been longing for more since I was a small child.
I am currently doing a Masters in Astronomy and Astrophysics (Advanced) with the Australian National University and CSIRO. I am using radio telescopes to determine how our galaxy is producing stars. I am also looking at Indigenous weather predictions and applying a Western science approach to Indigenous knowledge to explore how traditional, holistic methods are supported and explained through physics and meteorological systems. Indigenous people have been looking at the stars and sky for thousands of years, longer than anybody on Earth. This science is within our culture, and our heritage, it’s within me....
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