‘Role models that Indigenous Australians can identify with, together with a supportive community and family environment, help to set high aspirations for economic independence and the skills necessary to achieve it’’1
IBA Scholarship Fund recipient Yvette Carolin.
On a grey and oppressively humid morning in Darwin, Yvette Carolin sings at the top of her lungs as she drives through the heavy rain. Her resolutely sunny mood is largely due to two things: the letter from Charles Darwin University tucked into her handbag, confirming that she has completed her Bachelor of Commerce degree; and the knowledge that after years of one-minute-to-midnight deadlines, it’s okay that we’re both going to be late for our meeting.
You might think Yvette would be enjoying a well-earned break after a decade juggling the role of university student with that of mother, partner, carer, employee and mentor. But this proud descendant of the Yanyuwa and Jawoyn people has plans to apply her new knowledge, skills and “skyrocketing self-confidence” to enhance the economic development of her community – and she’s keen to share them.
Yvette began her tertiary studies with commerce in 1998, but the personal and financial commitments that go with raising two young children on a low income made it difficult for her to make any headway. ‘I had enrolled in a unit (of study) each semester…and I just couldn’t do it’, said Yvette. ‘I passed, but it was like I could only just manage it with everything I had to do’.
When she first learned about the IBA Scholarship Fund, Yvette was working for the Indigenous Youth Mobility Program, helping other Indigenous Australians realise their academic potential. ‘We were bringing young 16- to 25-year-olds into Darwin from remote areas for study’, she said. ‘All these young kids were coming through following their own study journey, and I kind of got back onto that track, got inspired by the younger ones’. When a colleague showed her a leaflet for the scholarship fund and offered to write a letter of support, Yvette seized the opportunity to get her own studies back on track.
As her family’s main income earner, Yvette said she had felt guilty about the financial strain her study was placing on her family, and had considered giving up. ‘My academic history shows that when IBA intervened in my study, my results went up’, said Yvette. ‘Those other niggling financial issues were resolved on the side, so it freed me up to study with no guilt’.
The IBA Scholarship Fund recognises that personal and financial barriers can restrict study options for mature-aged Indigenous Australians. The fund provides recipients with financial support to cover study expenses such as course fees, child care, communication and IT costs, textbooks and transport.
This assistance enabled Yvette to reduce her working hours and switch to full-time study, fast-tracking her degree. ‘I worked out that if IBA hadn’t supported me, it [the degree] would have taken me another nine years. I wouldn’t have graduated until 2018. I would have been the oldest new graduate!’
However, Yvette maintains that the scholarship provided only one piece of a personal puzzle that also required determination and self-discipline; an ability to manage her time; and a commitment to maintaining strong personal and professional networks.
‘When it came to managing my family and cultural obligations with everything else, I really had to think about it’, she said. ‘But what it came down to for me was managing relationships and managing moments. So when I was at work I had to focus on work and I had to achieve my objectives there. With motherhood, well, you’ve got no choice; that overrides everything, so you have to factor that into every moment. But in each of those arenas of home, work, study, family and friends [because you can’t just ditch them!] you’ve got to keep your networks. You need your networks because they are also your support group and your sounding board, and they keep you up to date with current issues that are happening out there in the real world’.
Reminding friends, family and her community about her study achievements helped Yvette to keep her personal relationships strong. ‘I found the time to turn up to a [community] forum every now and then, so people knew I was still around’, she said. ‘And I would ring and email friends about my good results. They know I’m a ratbag, and they know if I can do it, they can quite possibly do it as well’.
Yvette Carolin speaking with IBA CEO Chris Fry at a Scholarship Fund dinner in Canberra 2011.
According to Yvette, that inner ‘ratbag’ would sometimes surface during stressful assignment and exam periods, so she was vigilant about keeping communication lines open with her two sons. ‘Again, it was about managing relationships and managing moments’, she said. ‘The kids knew that when I had my study face on, don’t go there! It’s the ‘let’s not talk to mum right at this second’ face! And we learned strategies like putting notes in front of each other– which didn’t always work, of course’.
With the emotional rollercoaster ride of study behind her, Yvette is excited about the “real study culture” that now exists in her home. She is also proud that her sons believe they can pursue tertiary study if they choose. ‘The kids saw the books; they are everywhere, and a lot of them have ‘management’ and ‘marketing’ written on them’, she said. ‘One day my big son asked me, ‘Mum, what’s marketing?’ and he actually sat down and listened to me. And then of course it was like ‘Oh yeah, alright. Bye mum!’ Because I actually got right into telling him, and I forgot that with kids you’ve got to make it 25 words or less! But I would bring them into it, and they would ask me, ‘mum, how did you go on that assignment’, and when the results came in they rejoiced with me’.
Yvette credits the support of her partner [and now husband] for helping her manage moments of self-doubt and stress. ‘My partner runs his own business, and was trying to make his own way’, she said. ‘But he was there, and he and my family saw it all–the emotional side of it, the highs and lows’.
It was during a particularly busy study period that Yvette found herself managing an additional assignment: planning her own wedding. ‘I nearly died when I was asked’, she said. ‘I was like, ‘Do you want to rethink that?’ But he’s seen me at my worst’.
Yvette credits her early involvement in sport with helping her set goals and manage her time to achieve them. She said: ‘What sticks with me [from school] was how I was told that I was bad at reading and comprehension, which stuck with me my whole life. Because comments stick, you know? But positive sticks as well, and what my educators did for me by slotting me into sports was to build a set of skills and attitudes that I’ve been able to transfer across to my commerce degree. So I kept raising the high jump, raising the bar but not high enough to not succeed. I learned that from an early mentor in my life [John Robinson]. He planted that seed that when you set your objectives, make them specific, but wide enough not to fail’.
To this day, Yvette compares her academic achievements with sport. ‘Tutorials were training, assignments were major games, and exams were the final and grand final. And this little letter here’, she said gesturing towards the letter in her bag, ‘this is the premiership cup!’
However, Yvette is concerned that many Indigenous people may doubt their academic abilities, believing they are ‘only’ good at sports. She said: ‘I’m saying to my Mob out there that you can use your sports background and transfer those skills and attitudes into a study environment. So, turning up to training on time, that’s assignments. Interpersonal skills and talking to coaches, that’s your lecturers. Your supporters are your network who are actually encouraging you, and that’s IBA. IBA has been a great supporter in the crowd for me’.
Yvette’s other supporters have included generations of women who inspired her to pursue her dreams. ‘It was the strength of my grandmothers and then my beautiful mother, who is a self-taught action woman and very competent in everything she does’, she said. ‘I had that strength on the home front. There was a lot of love, and those basic values of dignity, and holding your head up high and wearing your family on your shoulder. Those things all help’.
IBA Scholarship Fund recipient and new graduate Yvette Carolin.
It was towards the end of her degree that Yvette began to understand how her strong cultural upbringing might relate to the commercial concepts she was learning. ‘So with understanding concepts like international marketing studies where they talk about cultural issues in economic markets, I thought, ‘Well, we do this every day with our people’. It clicked for me, and I then based a lot of my assignments around entering into Indigenous markets at international and domestic levels’.
It’s at the community level that Yvette now hopes to apply that knowledge. ‘I come from a cultural society where it’s not necessarily about what you think and what you want to do, it’s about other people’, she said. ‘There’s no fun in moving ahead alone, and we all need to go together. So now I’m checking in with the community to find out where the gaps are, because I’ve been out of the scene for a while. Where can I integrate my skills at both a community level and an organisational level? So for instance with joint-venture ideas and arrangements…we could manage relationships out on Country…and help identify commercial businesses that build the health of the community and promote employment, but not at the cost of kinship’.
For Yvette, the first step will involve falling back on what could be called her ‘other degree’: a Bachelor of Managing Relationships and Moments. ‘I’m looking at my mentors and role models going forward’, she said. ‘I am already working out my relationship plan, my networking plan. I have a dream to help with framing economic development and I have over the years looked at different business models. Now with this Bachelor of Commerce behind me I can articulate and create pathways to elaborate on that’.
Yvette is proud and excited about how she will use her qualification to shape the future for her family and community. She hopes to be a role model for other Indigenous Australians, inspiring them to ‘reward’ themselves with tertiary education, knowing the individual pursuit of those qualifications can benefit a whole community. ‘I really want to convey that you are not compromising yourself or your culture by pursuing individual study and employment opportunities’, she said. ‘This is what our families grew us to be… We can look up to each other, be our own role models and be proud of it. We shouldn’t put limitations on ourselves by thinking it’s not culturally acceptable to pursue these things for ourselves individually, because I say it is. To be strong, to be empowered and all you can be – that’s our way forward’.
Australian Government, 2011, Indigenous Economic Development Strategy 2011–2018, Canberra.