Shiralee speaks on completing her 16 year student journey
My degree has been 16 years in the making. That’s not a typo. 16 years. It’s been a long road that kicked off in 2004 (showing my age here). I completed one year of a degree that I had absolutely no interest in before withdrawing to embark on a ten-year journey that saw me tackle various jobs whilst balancing family and cultural responsibilities. Once I relocated to Wollongong from my hometown of Dubbo, it wasn’t long before I made the decision to enrol at UOW, but this time in something that aligned with my passions. As a part time student, I slowly ticked off subject by subject whilst I was working at Woolyungah Indigenous Centre. At times I felt frustrated at how slowly I was making my way through my degree, but someone wise said to me; “Time will pass whether you’re studying or not. Don’t you want something to show for it at the end?”. I made the decision then and there that yes, I did want that piece of paper, and I committed to studying full time to reach my goal.
Studying as a mature age student has its pros and cons. Pro: you have more life experience to contribute to class discussions. Con: people create and circulate memes about how mature age student’s brag about having more life experience in class discussions. In all seriousness, I had a lot more focus and discipline because I had to spread my time across a lot of core responsibilities, specifically for my family. I could not have managed this workload without the unwavering support from my family, friends and WIC.
My ITAP Tutor was an invaluable piece to the bigger puzzle that kept me focused and accountable. Not only was she able to help me navigate the complex world of academia, but she was also able to challenge me in ways that resulted in me weaving my (Indigenous) ways of knowing and learning with the westernised constructs that we as students are bound to. Throughout this process, it became crystal clear that we as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are not only expected to walk and function in two worlds (Indigenous and western), we excel at it – sometimes unknowingly.
Numerous times I felt exhausted and consumed by the emotional, mental and physical toll that we as blackfullas have to endure whilst walking in these two worlds. To survive, I equipped myself with a solid circle of staunch black women who I met during my time at UOW. These amazing women made me feel supported when I had to vent, shared my highs and lows and scheduled late night study sessions at WIC that often turned into yarns, laughs and sugar highs from ridiculously unhealthy snacks (Coco Pops at 2am anyone?). I cannot stress enough how important it is to seek out and connect with likeminded people whilst studying whom you can share your journey with. Many of us are first in family to attend university, which means that it’s hard for our family members to understand the pressures we face. Find you circle and lock them down – they are vital!
I am ecstatic to say that I have completed my degree – Bachelor of Arts majoring in Indigenous Studies and Sociology - and will be receiving that coveted piece of paper in the mail very soon (thanks COVID). I felt a tornado of emotions (and tears) when I clicked ‘Submit’ on my final assessment – relief, pride, excitement and of course, happiness.
My goal may have taken me 16 years to reach, but I am grateful for the lessons I have learnt and the people that I have met. It’s now time for me to give back in a way that acknowledges and honours the work that our ancestors and Elders have done, and continue to do, to create space for so many of us mob to thrive. The future is Indigenous. The future is US!