1st year Bachelor of Education (Primary)(Away from Base) student, ACU Strathfield Campus
For Michelle Marsh, winning a scholarship to study at the ACU Strathfield Campus was one of a constellation of moments that has forever transformed her life and the lives of her five children.
I didn’t think I’d get in. I didn’t think I’d be ready.
The Indigenous solo mother, now 26, had been alcohol and drug-addicted since the age of 16 and living in a violent and emotionally abusive relationship, when the trauma of losing custody of her four children finally drove her to seek a new path.
Eight months pregnant with her fifth child, Michelle voluntarily entered rehabilitation for 13 months, where she experienced what she describes as her “lightbulb moment”.
“In rehab, there was a woman who put a lot of emotional energy into me—she understood me on a level that no-one else could,” Michelle says. “About a quarter of the way through our journey together, she said, ‘You realise you could go to uni?’
“And I remembered how when I was at school I had been taken with some other Indigenous kids to the [Charles Sturt] university campus in Bathurst. That was a door that was opened for me when I was younger that I never followed through, because of my addiction and bad choices.
“With all of the abuse throughout my life, I didn’t know my own capability or who I was as a person. My mum had a severe mental illness, my father was absent throughout my childhood, and there wasn’t much connection with other family. A lot of my history as an Indigenous person had been lost.”
At the age of 10, Michelle and her siblings had been taken from their own mother. She missed Year 7-9 of school, and as soon as she was 16, had moved from the Blue Mountains to Dubbo, where the cycle of addiction and partner abuse began.
“It took a long time for me to realise my own kids did not deserve to be put through that, but I did not fully understand the effects of domestic violence,” she says.
“After I got free, I realised I had to create my own future. I had to create me as a person—I had to realise what I like doing and what I like learning about.”
Out of rehab and with three children back in her care, Michelle took up a teacher’s aide role at her eldest son’s school, Redfern Jarjum College. The Jesuit primary school for Indigenous and Torres Strait Islanders caters especially for children from broken homes and with behavioural issues, who find the mainstream education environment challenging.
It was here Michelle had the rewarding experience of receiving her first “proper paycheque” and discovered what she really wanted to do with her life.
“For the first time I was interested,” she says. “It was like having 20 of my son running around. As a child, I had some of the same behavioural issues these kids have. They give me hope, because I can see the potential in them that I never saw in myself.”
With the further encouragement of the staff at Redfern, Michelle decided she would like to be a teacher in this type of learning environment.
“Seeing the difference of working in a school that was less structured and more about emotional needs, and realising just how much self-determination and emotional development is necessary to succeed in life—it’s not just about academics, it’s about being able manage your emotions—I decided I wanted to do an education degree and teach here.”
A further incentive was the partnership between Redfern and the ACU Strathfield Campus and the availability of scholarships for every year of study. Michelle was successful in winning a St Vincent de Paul Society-Broken Bay Central Council Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Scholarship, worth $2000 per year for three years. And in 2016, she began her first year of study towards a Bachelor of Education (Primary Indigenous Program).
The scholarship is providing welcome financial relief for Michelle, who was recently successful in regaining custody of her other two children, and now has five children aged two-and-a-half to eight years old in her sole care.
Equally important, however, was the significant boost the scholarship provided to Michelle’s confidence.
“I really didn’t think I’d get in. I didn’t’ think I’d be ready,” she says.
While Michelle has had to reduce some of her coursework this semester to manage her children’s care, she is thriving in the ACU program and is already having input into curriculum development at Redfern.
Her coursework has been both academically and emotionally challenging, confronting Indigenous politics she has always subconsciously avoided—“It’s easier to sweep it under the rug, but you feel the impact of it throughout your life. You hear it on the radio and see it on the TV, you see the effects of it in the community, but you don’t really understand it or how to deal with it”.
However, understanding and embedding Indigenous perspectives has also been the aspect of the program she has most embraced.
“I was meant to critique a lesson plan but I went on and created my own, and I felt very empowered after doing that,” she says.
Most empowering of all has been witnessing the impact on her own children—and the new doors opening up to them.
“My mother didn’t put up a fight for me or my brothers and sisters—she wasn’t mentally strong enough. My biggest source of determination is that I don’t want my kids to limit their ability. The only way they’re going to have a successful life and reach their full potential is if I do,” she says.
“I see a lot of Indigenous kids acting out scenarios of drunkenness—they drink water and then fall about saying, ‘I’m drunk, I’m drunk’. Recently, I saw my son scooting down the driveway, saying, ‘I’m going to be late, I’m going to be late for university!’”
“As an eight-year-old, he now knows that doorway is open to him. And if he has inherited the addictive behaviour, he also sees the doorway of rehabilitation and re-shaping his life open to him.”
This potential for creating new doorways and new choices for Indigenous youth is a powerful motivator for Michelle.
“Whether it’s through teaching or social work, I know that’s my passion. If I can save even just one out of 10 children from the background I had, it’s giving them the choice and freedom to fight for their place in the world.”