Lending a helping hand
As a child, Elaine Chapman received a strong message about education.
"My need to succeed came from my early years being raised by a non-Indigenous guardian who was very cruel," she recalls, sitting in the sunlit Gibalee Centre on the Central Coast campus where she is Elder in Residence.
"If I came home from school with anything less than perfect marks, I was hit." Chapman's mother, who had renounced her Aboriginality in order to continue working as the man's housekeeper to be close to her youngest child, could do little to protect her daughter. When Chapman was old enough, she left her Sydney home to start a nursing career at Peat Island Hospital on the Hawkesbury River. She was just 17 and the only female nurse.
She says that it was her tough upbringing that led her to seek out the challenging role, but it was her love of nursing that then became the driver of her ongoing hunger for education. "I found a job that I was good at and no matter how hard it could be at times, I wanted to help people," she says. "The first six months I was terrified, but nobody would have guessed. I just focused on doing the best I could."
Four decades later, after working as a psychiatric nurse and then with young people with special needs, Chapman is still focused on helping people through her role at The Wollotuka Institute's Gibalee Centre. The mother of two university-educated teachers, she can often be found visiting nearby schools, encouraging Indigenous students to aim high, as well as assisting Indigenous students on campus.
"A woman who is completing Open Foundation came to see me recently and she was a mess," says Chapman, who has obtained a Bachelor of Community Management from Macquarie University and a Diploma of Aboriginal Studies from the University of Newcastle. "She didn't know where she was going with her study so I sat and talked with her for about half an hour. As she was leaving, I stopped her and said, 'One more important thing – don't let anyone tell you that you can't do this. You can.'"
Feeling as though they don't have what it takes to complete tertiary study is a common experience for many Indigenous students, according to Chapman. "In general, these kids face the generational lack of education and opportunities. They're often the first in the family to go to university and their biggest hurdle is pushing on without the academic support at home. Mum and dad might give them love and encouragement, but can't discuss the details of an assignment they are struggling with."
Chapman can vividly recall how intimidating those first few months at university can be and she is available to both students and staff to help make the transition more manageable. "When I was studying, I sometimes had to ask my children to help me interpret an assignment question," she says, laughing. "It's not shameful to need some guidance and that's the message I want to pass on to Indigenous kids."
Find out more about the University of Newcastle's Indigenous programs - the most comprehensive in Australia.