Most Australian students do not have to contend with a different language, climate and culture when they start high school, but Amaya Chula did.
She’s among thousands of Aboriginal students from around Australia who undertake secondary education interstate, away from their families and country.
For Amaya, that meant leaving the scorching heat of Wadeye in the remote Northern Territory to start high school in Bright, a small town in Victoria’s alpine region.
“My biggest culture shock was wearing shoes all the time,” she said.
Amaya spent five years studying at Bright P-12 College as part of an exchange program run by the Wadeye-based Thamarrurr Youth Indigenous Corporation.
Her persistence paid off.
During that time, Amaya spoke on a panel with Cambridge University about climate change.
Now, she’s been accepted to study marine biology at the University of Tasmania, where she will pursue her passion for protecting sea animals.
Amaya will become the first person in her family to go to university.
“I feel very proud of myself, but I’m also feeling mixed emotions,” she said.
“I think everyone deserves an education.”
A ‘visionary’ program
In the remote Northern Territory, where many schools are under-funded and children are often born into poverty, it is common for students to drop out before their final exams.
Of the 1,352 students across the territory who finished year 12 last year, 228 were Aboriginal students.
And, of those students, 70 came from remote communities, making up about 5 per cent of the total cohort.
Australian National University research fellow and co-chair of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation Marnie O’Bryan said the exchange program between Wadeye and Bright was an example of what remote students could achieve with the right support.
“In celebrating [Amaya’s] success, we also need to recognise that she’s been part of something quite visionary in this country,” she said.
“Two communities — one in regional Victoria and one in remote Northern Territory — [that] have worked together to construct this program.”
However, Dr O’Bryan said, local education programs on country were in urgent need of government funding so that remote students could complete high school in their own communities.
“This is a national scandal,” Dr O’Bryan said.
“If these were white, middle-class kids from an urban setting who were being deprived of investment in their secondary education, it would be on the front page of the newspaper every single day.”
‘Racism still does exist’
On top of the usual challenges of high school, Amaya also encountered and endured racism.
“It was tough because, towards the end of school, I was the only person that looked like myself: basically the only black kid at the school,” she said.
“It was a lot harder, because I wanted to fit in but it was clear that I stood out.”
After returning to Wadeye, Amaya said she couldn’t shake the feeling of being discriminated against “just because I was black or different from the other kids”.
“I absolutely hated the feeling,” she said.
“I hated it more because, when I went back to Wadeye, I thought, ‘Half these guys don’t even understand what racism is’.
“Sometimes, when I think about it, I just get a little bit mad at the world, a little bit mad at myself that racism still does exist.”
A chance to be a role model
As a child in Wadeye, Amaya — who belongs to the Rak Thangkurral people — said she cherished learning about her culture, in which family is given top priority.
“The education of my culture is way more important to me than any education that I’ll ever receive outside of that,” she said.
“Growing up it was super normal for me to be able to give the clothes on my back to one of my younger cousins.
“I think, from that, I learned to always give something because someone else has it way worse than me.”
Amaya said it was “no secret” that Wadeye had been the centre of violent unrest between families in recent months.
She said she knew many of the young people involved.
“I can confidently say they’re more talented than I am,” she said.
“I just don’t think they know there are people out there who are willing to help them, and I want to be one of those people who does help them get out of that life.”
Amaya said she hoped her success at school would inspire other young people to follow in her footsteps.
“It’s a bonus for me, because I love marine biology and I really want to do it,” she said.
“But it’s more so that the other kids [and] young adults can see it and say, ‘If she did it, I can do it’.
“That’s the kind of mindset I want to create for my community.”