UOW graduate Mitchell Strange stands in front of the sign for Woolyungah Indigenous Centre.

Woolyungah Indigenous Centre helped Mitchell find his place at University

Woolyungah Indigenous Centre helped Mitchell find his place at University

Juggling studies and internship a learning curve for engineering graduate

Mitchell Strange struggled in high school. It was a time he describes as “troubled”, for myriad reasons, and an environment that was not conducive to learning.

But the proud Kuku-Yalanji man knew he was capable of more. He just had to find the right place to carve out his own path.

For Mitchell, that place was the University of Wollongong, and that opportunity was a cadetship with Transport for NSW.

While in his final year of high school, Mitchell applied for a cadetship. He landed the role, but it was contingent upon earning a place at University.

“I applied for Early Entry for a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering,” Mitchell says. “I had to get a spot at uni to take up the cadetship. The aim was that I would work two days a week, and then full time during holidays, for Transport for NSW while studying.

“Electrical Engineering was the degree I was most interested in, so when I got a spot through Early Entry, I was thrilled. I’m from Liverpool, in South West Sydney, and UOW really gave me the chance to balance study and work. Having the cadetship and the degree gave me the best of both worlds. Everything fell into place.”

The independence of study at university allowed Mitchell to thrive, but he admits it was a challenge at first.

“I really had to develop my time management skills. For the first two years, I squished a five-day timetable into three days so I could work. I was trying to find my groove and balance everything. But I loved it. I found my passion.”

A huge help for Mitchell during this time was Woolyungah Indigenous Centre (WIC), which provided him with the tangible advice and support to balance his competing priorities. As he progressed through his degree, it also gave him the opportunity to give back to younger Indigenous students who were starting at UOW.

“I struggled a bit academically in my first year, but WIC took me under their wing. They gave me structure and support. In my later years of my degree, I had a bit more time, and I loved being able to mentor younger Indigenous kids. I wanted to give back what WIC gave to me.” 

Part of Mitchell’s desire to pay it forward is motivated by his aunt, Pat O’Shane, who was the first Aboriginal magistrate in Australia. Her achievements are numerous and storied, including being the first woman and Indigenous person to head a government department, the NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs, and the first Indigenous woman admitted to the NSW Bar. 

Mitchell says his aunt has been a source of inspiration throughout his life.

“When I was going through high school, I was often told I wasn’t black enough to be Indigenous. I really struggled with my identity,” Mitchell says. “I looked to my aunt as my role model. I saw that her accomplishments had paved the path for my own achievements. I can because she has gone before me."

In the final year of his degree, Mitchell was awarded an Indigenous Scholarship from the Aurora Education Foundation. It was an incredible honour, he says, although unfortunately the travel portion of the scholarship, which enables him to spend time in the United States and the United Kingdom, exploring postgraduate opportunities, was marred by COVID-19.

However, Mitchell is hoping to take up this chance once travel is again on the table.

For the moment, he is enjoying his new role as a Fly-In, Fly-Out electrical engineer for BHP, which saw him relocate to Perth early in 2021.

He is hoping in the future, though, to take on a Masters or PhD in engineering. 

It is an incredible transformation for the student who once hated high school. But it is a testament to how much Mitchell thrived in a university environment.

“It was a great relief to finish my degree. I finally made it,” Mitchell says. “I knew I could do it, and achieve this, but I was never in an environment that was conducive to succeeding. The independence of university has allowed me to pave my own way.”

Mitchell attributes much of his success to his mother, Nicole. She is his primary motivator and mentor.  

“Mum has gone above and beyond in the support she has given me throughout high school and university,” he says. “She’s also one of my powerful Indigenous role models and is currently studying her own Masters degree.”