Returning Opportunity, one determined student at a time – Spring Lunch guest speaker Jessa Rogers

On 25 October at the Spring Lunch, the Podmore Foundation was pleased to invite Jessa Rogers as its guest speaker. At the Spring Lunch, Jessa gave a powerful, moving speech on her experience with Indigenous education, her life’s story and her interactions with Podmore’s scholarship recipients.

Each year, Podmore hosts a Spring lunch in Canberra to celebrate scholarship recipient’s achievements, introduce and promote the work of the Foundation, and encourage support. At the most recent luncheon On 25 October 2015, guests were introduced to a remarkable young woman Jessa Rogers. a proud Wiradjuri woman and PhD scholar at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University in Canberra.

In 2014, Jessa was awarded the ANU Vice-Chancellor’s Staff Award (Reconciliation) and the 2015 Minoru Hokari Scholarship for her PhD research, which looks at the experiences of Aboriginal and Māori girls attending boarding schools using photoyarn, a method she is developing. Jessa has been working with Yalari scholarship recipients, including the Podmore students in Canberra, to understand their personal stories of determination, commitment to their families and communities, their struggles to excel in schooling far from home and the challenges of growing through their boarding school experiences.

Jessa Rogers (Photo courtesy Peter Breen)

In her keynote address, Jessa told her story: born in Canberra and raised in Queensland, Jessa realised quite early that her family did not have a lot of money. ‘As a child, you notice things that others have that you don’t and while this never bothered me so much, I realised in my early primary school years that education seemed to be the factor in determining those who had lots of opportunities and those who had little.’ Jessa remembers asking how people “got good jobs” and hearing about ‘university’—somewhere no one in her immediate family had been.

Her parents, both with year-ten educations, raised her to work hard. Jessa wanted the chance to attend a good school and go on to university (whatever that was). With the help of her parents, Jessa was awarded a scholarship to Nambour Christian College from year seven.

Working solidly for the next five years, Jessa started year 12. In the first few weeks of term, she discovered she was pregnant.‘I thought my schooling was over’, remembers Jessa. ‘Luckily for me, someone believed in me.’

That someone was the same person who had awarded Jessa her scholarship five years earlier, the principal of Nambour Christian College, Mr Bruce Campbell. Mr Campbell and the school supported Jessa tirelessly. Not only did she continue her year 12 studies, she graduated with an ATAR of 92, two subject awards, the Creative and Performing Arts Shield for that year and a ten-day-old son. ‘I realised what I had known all along,’ said Jessa. ‘Education is the key to unlocking brighter futures for students from all backgrounds, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.’

Jessa Rogers (Photo courtesy Peter Breen)

To get to and from university, Jessa travelled four hours a day by train. She raised her son and completed two degrees, in creative arts and education. Inspired by her own scholarship, teachers and principals, Jessa then accepted a role as a support officer working with Aboriginal boarding students in Brisbane.

That work, combined with her experience as a scholarship student and being an Aboriginal woman, became part of Jessa’s practice in Indigenous education. In the years following, Jessa drew on the lessons learnt with those students as she completed her master’s degree and began lecturing pre-service teachers in Indigenous education.

In the final years of her PhD, Jessa has interviewed 45 students in boarding schools across Australia, including five Podmore scholarship recipients at Canberra Girls Grammar School. Jessa highlighted two key learnings from her research.

For our young indigenous leaders attending boarding school, they face many pressures, sometimes unknown to either family or school. This “in between” space is one that is not researched and is an important topic to yarn  because of the pressure it places on our students.

The push and pull between expectations of family and school can be over many things. Expectations are not often made clear, leaving students feeling stuck in the middle, unable to meet both sets of responsibilities. ‘For students to succeed, we have to work together,’ Jessa said. ‘The burden should not be placed on our students’ shoulders, navigating the expectations of two important structures in their lives while working towards their own goals for their people, culture and families.’

Jessa Rogers with Areti Metuamate (Photo courtesy Peter Breen)

It is at these crossroads that organisations like Yalari and Podmore come to the fore: providing support and friendship to these young people, aged anywhere from 11 to 18, as they traverse a brand new world far from home.

The other key challenge is that attending boarding school changes the girls, ‘their language, world view, ability to accept certain lifestyle norms and their connection to family and culture are all spoken about as changing when our kids move away for their schooling,’ she says. The concept of “walking in two worlds” is often used to describe the two sets of cultural norms Indigenous students become comfortable living and acting within.

The dedication and commitment boarding school students have to remain away from home and work solidly toward their goals, often in the face of many challenges, inspires Jessa.

To the Podmore scholarship recipients present, Jessa offered this advice:

Today, I say to those brave and dedicated young leaders making sacrifices in the hope of brighter futures, don’t give up. You can do it. You are braver than you think and stronger than you seem. The journey of education is a wonderful one, one that will allow you choice in life and the ability to contribute much to your people. It is a worthwhile, but difficult journey. Boarding schools are funny places, where you gain new friends that become family, learn independence and understand the ways of a different world. Just don’t lose who you are. You can be whoever you want to be, but never forget where you came from.

The willingness of the Podmore and Yalari scholarship recipients to contribute to society and think of others is reflective of each of their kind and caring spirits. These young women and men will grow to become our next generation of Aboriginal leaders, in our communities, in their families, in their own homes, and most importantly, in their own lives.

The Podmore Foundation, Yalari and their many supporters across the country are committed to supporting these students and those who will come after them. Like Jessa, they have based their philosophies on education being the key to brighter futures. As Jessa says, ‘when the door opens for us and we find a way through, it is our responsibility to assist those coming behind us.’

Of Podmore and Yalari, Jessa has nothing but praise. ‘You are doing wonderful things,’ she said through tears at the end of her address*.

Jessa Rogers with former Podmore Foundation President, Dr Bob Breen (Photo courtesy Peter Breen)

Since 2008, eight Podmore scholarship recipients have completed their secondary schooling.  Seven have continued with tertiary and vocational education and one works as a doctor’s receptionist in her home town.    In 2016, the first Indigenous boy to enroll at Canberra Grammar School on a Podmore scholarship will begin his secondary schooling in Year 7.

You can support the Podmore Foundation by: becoming a member, establishing a scholarship or making a donation to support Returning Opportunity.

For more information, visit our website: http://podmorefoundation.org

Applications for 2017 Yalari scholarships are being accepted from January to the end of April 2016. For further information, please see www.yalari.org or www.podmorefoundation.org.au.

* In line with her vision for the future, Jessa Rogers became the inaugural Principal of the Girl Academy on Cape York at the end of 2015. An initiative of the Cape York Partnership, the Girl Academy is giving a second chance to disengaged girls and young mothers to recover their education and culture and to build a good life for themselves and their families).

 This article was originally written for The NSW Country Web Magazine, which is widely distributed to rural women in NSW and is an initiative of the NSW Department of Primary Industries. The Country Web is published two times a year with 12,000 copies printed and distributed free to readers.