An ongoing education
Growing up in Forster, Laurel Williams spent hours roaming the picturesque stretch of coastline between Bennetts Head and Pebbly Beach near the home where she was raised by her grandparents.
After leaving school at 15, a decision that was readily accepted both by the education system of the day and her family, Williams, a descendent of the Biripi people, was not expected to achieve much beyond walking down the aisle, which she did at 17.
Today, sitting at the dining table in her Lake Macquarie home with a painting of her beloved childhood stomping ground on the wall behind her, Williams describes her "second life", which began in 1976 after the end of her 20-year marriage.
"It all started with a call from my sister-inlaw who was involved in the NSW Aboriginal Education Committee (now the NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group). A delegation was heading to Victoria to observe their community model," she recalls. "Bob Morgan got sick so they had a spare seat and she suggested I pack a bag and go along.
"That phone call changed everything." Growing up in Forster, Laurel Williams spent hours roaming the picturesque stretch of coastline between Bennetts Head and Pebbly Beach near the home where she was raised by her grandparents. Williams, who was then living in Western Sydney as a single mother-of-two, observed that education held the key to opportunities for Indigenous people. For the first time, she saw how "silly" it was to have left school so young when she enjoyed learning and achieved good results.
"No-one encouraged me to stay on and continue my education," says Williams, who emphasises that the 1950s didn't offer women many options apart from low-level jobs, marriage and childrearing. "After getting involved with the NSW Aboriginal Education Committee, I was surrounded by people who wanted to make a difference for Aboriginal people."
Williams quickly made up for lost time and enrolled in a secretarial course so she could use her newly-obtained skills to lend a hand as a volunteer supporting the work of Evonne Bolton at the NSW Department of Education's head office.
"She was Aboriginal Education at the time," recalls Williams. "Evonne's role was to help establish Aboriginal content in the mainstream school curriculum."
From there, she accepted a job at Karuah as one of the first Aboriginal Teachers Aids (ATA) and completed the associated training program at the University of Sydney. Frustrated at being kept out of the classroom by photocopying and book covering tasks – "Schools didn't quite know how to integrate ATAs" – she decided to become a teacher.
Williams graduated from the Aboriginal Rural Education program at the University of Western Sydney as a primary school teacher in 1988 and has since worked in three tiers of education – schools, TAFE and Higher Education. She has completed a Master of Education through the University of Wollongong and is now in the third year of a PhD at the University of Newcastle.
Williams moved to the Hunter region in 1994 to complete a 12-month secondment as a senior lecturer in the then Department of Social Work. "The department wanted to include an Aboriginal perspective in their content so I developed a booklet and a series of videos to use as teaching tools for lecturers," she says. "I only came for a year, and I'm still here."
She went on to become the University's first head of the Department of Aboriginal Studies and was appointed acting director of Wollotuka in 1997 before becoming director in 1998 for two years.
Her current research focuses on the impact of Aboriginal community on education provision in NSW and the life member of the Aboriginal Education Consultative Group is busy completing field data collection and analysis. In her spare time, she is also writing a book detailing her 35-year career in education.
"When I was younger I never imagined this would be my path," she says. "I had noone to encourage me to further my education. It's the same for many Aboriginal people who have not had the opportunities to develop academically. This impacts on employment and social interaction, and feeds the cycle of poverty and disadvantage.
"Hopefully my research will help people realise why we have such a big educational gap and how we can make improvements. I have to pull myself up at times and acknowledge that inroads have been made with education, particularly at the University of Newcastle. But we can always do more."
Find out more about the University of Newcastle's Indigenous programs - the most comprehensive in Australia.