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Carmel Debel. Picture: supplied.

From disaster to distinction: one Indigenous woman’s education journey

Carmel Debel can remember the time her mother tried to enrol her and her brothers in the local primary school.

It was back in 1990, when she was seven, and when the administration staff and principal saw her mum standing there, a First Nations woman, their faces suddenly changed. They said their school did not take their kind and perhaps the next school in the next town "may be a better fit".

"I was a seven-year-old and to stand there and see that happen, and see my brother's faces, and my mum's, and not understand it … but understand it," she says.

"I can visualise it still really well, and those faces of uncertainty, like they don't want me. What's wrong with me?"

That memory sits with Carmel and many, if not all, First Nations Australians will have stories similar to this.

School didn't get any better for her, and by her own admission she wasn't engaged at all. School was a place for her to play sport and hang out with mates.

She describes her primary and secondary schooling as "a disaster".

She felt that "no one really cared" about her and she eventually walked out of high school with nothing.

It all came to a head during her HSC. Her mother was sick with cancer, she remembers dropping her at the hospital and watching her being wheeled away to surgery, and not long after being forced to sit her final exam.

She sat in that exam hall in floods of tears, wondering if she would see her mother again, and didn't even write her name on the paper.

Carmel went on with life, became a dental nurse, got married, had kids.

And as her kids started primary school, Carmel wanted to make sure that education was a different experience for them. She wanted everyone to know that education was important to her family.

So, she ended up working with the school's Indigenous liaison officer and the school support team, helping with things like NAIDOC celebrations and resources for the school.

And eventually someone noticed Carmel, who as girl was brutally shunned by the education system, had a natural ability when it came to teaching kids.

"They just said, 'Look, you're good at what you're doing. Maybe you should get paid to do it,'" Carmel tells Education Review.

It hadn't occurred to her that she might one day go to uni and become a teacher, but as soon as someone planted the idea, Carmel didn't look back.

"I hadn't had many people affirm me. When I did get affirmed, when I was in the school setting ... I applied for an Indigenous liaison officer spot in one of the schools," she says.

"Now I'd be sitting in classes with these students that were in year 10, working at a year four ability, supporting them. And knowing that I only had so many tools in my bag to be able to support them.

"And I just went, 'Look, I've got to do something. I've got to learn. I've got to get more tools in my bag so I can help these students.' And it was at that point that Catholic Education came to me and said we would like to offer you a sponsorship to support you to go through uni."

Carmel then embarked on her degree in teaching as part of the Faculty of Education’s ‘Away from Base’ program at Australian Catholic University (ACU).

The 'Away from Base' program supports First Nations students from regional and remote areas of Australia to study, literally away from their base.

Carmel would take the four-and-a-half-hour flight from Cairns to Sydney, leaving her family and friends, for an intensive week of study and then back home again to work on her course individually; she has done that for the last five years.

“At first, I cried about catching a plane, bus and a train. My brother took a day of leave to hold my hand through this new learning curve, literally while I wept with dread," she says.

"The hard thing with that was that for four, actually five years, I missed wedding anniversaries with my husband. I missed my son's birthday for the last five years. So there were some really hard things.

"But then at the same time, I needed to show my children that sometimes we have to sacrifice things to be able to achieve."

Carmel said that the transition to uni life was made easier by the support of the other students on her course.

"The thing that made me feel more comfortable was I was going through a unit called Yalbalinga, which is a First Nations support group through the university," she says, "which meant I'd be around people that may have been uncomfortable about uni.

"I'm with a group of people that understand my background. And I never thought that I belonged in a university. I felt like a bit of an imposter. So if I was to go mainstream, I don't think I would've coped as well."

More than 600 First Nations students have graduated from the program, with around 80 per cent of students successfully graduating. ACU’s 'Away from Base' has an impressive 100 per cent employment rate.

And Carmel, in her last semester, is soon to join those ranks and already has several offers from schools.

The university degree has given her a sense of confidence. She went from a child who didn't excel academically, to an adult who got distinctions and high distinctions and was invited to join the Golden Key society.

She says that teaching is partly about being a role model for First Nations kids — Carmel is a Tjungundji woman of Old Mapoon and Kaurareg of Prince of Wales Island— but it's just as important to her to educate all children about her culture.

"I want to inspire the students that don't understand the historical side of First Nations and how beautiful it is. And how the First Nations' perspective is in every element of learning," she says.

"I want to be able to inspire those students so that they see a positive side for what's happening with First Nations people.

"And then if I'm in a classroom and there's other teachers seeing things that I'm doing and how I'm bringing indigenous perspectives into the classroom, then I hope that gives them some power to be able to do that with conviction in their classrooms. Where they can enjoy it and feel comfortable and safe that they're doing it right."

Carmel says that when she gets that diploma in the mail it will be an emotional day. The weight of her journey to this point rests heavy on her, and it tells.

She says that her school teachers would be shocked and "probably a bit worried" if they learnt that she was going to be a teacher herself. She laughs at that thought as she says it out loud.

Thinking back to that day with her mum and brothers, she is at pains to say that she tells that story, not for sympathy, but so people understand the effect a school and its staff can have.

"It's something for people to learn from," she says. "And while at times that really, really hurt, it's also been one of the biggest drivers for me.

"But I didn't realise that until I was much, much older. And I think that's why I'm a mature age student going to uni, because that knocked me a fair bit.

"I've had so many negative interactions with education. I'm now starting to feel affirmed and feel a part of it, now people are asking me to be a part of it. So it's bitter-sweet; I've gone from the not-so-nice to feeling like I fit somewhere.

"I think everything for me, it's just fallen into place at the right time."

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  1. An inspiring story; a great read for all educators.

    School staff just have to be there for every child to support and affirm them on their way.

    I just hope that the sorts of things that happened to Carmel wanting to get into school and going through school are happening less and less for First Nation and for all children.

    • Congratulations Carmel, Such an inspiring story for all educators. I’m so glad that your confidence in education has been restored and expanded. You will be an extraordinary teacher who will impact your students and colleagues in any setting. Blessings for your work and a long and purposeful career.

    • What a perfect snap shot of a youth transforming into a life long inspired learner. That truly encapsulates the purpose of a teacher, to bring light and knowing where there is little. You are an absolute rock star.

  2. Congratulations Carmel. I am very honoured that you have shared your story in this article and proud to say that I work alongside you. Your openness and approachability with teachers and staff is having a significant impact towards our goals of not only embedding First Nations Perspectives into our schools, but also in ensuring that the young people that we educate are able to excel. Let us pray and hope that all schools remember to treat all students with dignity, respect and welcome them with open arms.

  3. A very inspiring and heart warming story.
    I am glad you never gave up. It would have been such a huge loss for our education system if you had taken the easy way out. You are a great example to all those disengaged students.
    I wish you a long and very fulfilling career.

    Well done Carmel!

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