As a relatively recent university graduate, I have been reflecting on my time and experience and think it is easy to feel discouraged if you are the first in your family to go onto further education. It makes you question why you pursued it if it is not something “done” in your family, it makes you really bolster your decision to proceed because the purpose is not tied to expectations external to yourself – this is entirely you, something you pursue.
Having two strong grandparents, coupled with the general predicament of my immediate and extended family was all the motivation I needed.
Being a cycle breaker can feel like a thankless task if your family and community are not behind you or don’t understand you. I remember that I often heard in high school and university, that young Indigenous kids wanted to graduate to get a job and help their mob and family. In fact, I even said this a lot myself when interviewed for high school or university articles. At the time, graduation seemed like a distant thing – so the gravity of what I was declaring had not been really contemplated to its full depth of responsibility. My heart and intent were there, but the magnitude of the responsibility of being a cycle breaker and the issues that come with it were not fully understood then as I was just embarking on my journey. There’s no step by step plan to getting an education, but you have support staff and other like-minded Indigenous students that encourage you along. Then once you have finished your tertiary studies and upon returning back to your community. You find yourself with the burden of knowledge to all of the historic and continuing racial and social issues that culminate into the dysfunction that is a part of everyday life now.
In my efforts to find academic articles researching the impact of cycle breakers. I found none that specifically focused on Indigenous students returning to country/community, post university. There has been a lot of work done to boost student numbers, support services to keep retention rates high. Also Academic literature that focuses on the success and/or failure of pathway programs and the importance of culturally appropriate support.
But from my experiences and what I have seen within the tertiary space is that this is quite a new.
In June 2019 I finally graduated after 6 years of tertiary studies – Aboriginal Cultural Studies minoring in Environmental Studies. This choice of bachelor’s degree made a lot of sense to me. Having spent most of my early childhood growing up in the remote bush on the Kimberley coast, I was heavily influenced by my grandparents who over time helped me see the world through their eyes and appreciate the natural world. Having them at my graduation ceremony meant the absolute world to me – even reflecting on it now, every fibre of my being is so emotionally happy and radiates with immeasurable pride that they both witnessed me graduate.
In my heart, at the time I knew I had achieved this milestone for them and for my ancestors and my people currently. I knew it would be difficult returning home and slowly getting back into the daily life of rural Kimberley towns but I had no idea how lonely I would feel. Being the first in the family to go to university has meant that I have been away from my family for a long time. I’ve missed birthdays, funerals, family gatherings and other life events in between. As I’ve grown and matured so too have my parents and siblings, nieces and nephews, uncles and aunties. This has meant I have at times felt isolated from my family and community because of this distance. (It’s hard to always know the difference between being apart when we grow and growing apart)
While I have felt the distance, I am also aware of the many opportunities education has brought me personally. I have travelled and seen the world, rubbed shoulders with influential people and expanded my mind through tertiary education. As this has been going on, my family has remained somewhat stagnant within the Kimberley not being mentally stimulated in everyday life and with school gradually not becoming a compulsory routine in their lives. This makes me feel sad and so alone just because I cannot relate to much of their life anymore. I find myself angry as I often contend with the responsibility of being the voice of reason throughout daily life of minor and major dysfunction in my family and home community.
My global experience and outlook must seem so foreign to my family that continues to as they always have and while I understand this, I feel that I can no longer relate as education has taught me about the wealth of opportunity and that the struggle for our people is bigger than me, my family and home community. It is bigger than Kimberly and while I advocate for them all, I know that all who are exposed to the knowledge, world view and experience that I have been – know that our responsibility is larger than even we can contemplate. So while I personally feel a disconnect with the perspectives of my family and community sometimes as a result of this education and experience I have had, I would not change it because I know I can contribute to change in a way that matters for more people.
Having my eyes and mind opened to the world, it’s impossible to close it and as much as I try to help my family along I find myself staring at an ever widening gap between them and myself. The pressure that I felt going through high school and the first few years at university was one that could often become quite suffocating if I thought about it too much. With maturity, I began to find my footing and found that the pressure of my family, social standing, history and possible futures all became a comfortable weight that motivated me rather than becoming anxiety inducing.
So while there are a lot of internal struggles that young kids who move away from community for education and opportunity face, I want to encourage them to stick with it and to grasp every opportunity with both hands. There is no step by step manual in how to be a cycle breaker and there will be members of your family or community that will not understand your decisions and life path and that is okay, do not be discouraged, keep going and know that you are creating change simply by existing and fighting the cycle of disenfranchisement that our historical governments have so effectively entrenched.
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