The proud Djaru Elder was born in Broome but has spent her working life across Australia and the world. Challenging the expectation that as a young Indigenous woman she would become a domestic worker she began her training as a nurse at the age of 17 at Darwin Hospital.
“We Indigenous people have the same aspirations as everyone else and my aspiration was to be a nurse” she told ABC Darwin.
She became the first Indigenous person to graduate as a trained nurse and went on to work in various remote communities, including at Lajamanu and Hooker Creek, for seventeen years.
In 1975, she moved to South Australia and turned her mind to tertiary education. She completed an Associate Diploma of Social Work in 1979 before becoming the coordinator of the Aboriginal Taskforce at the South Australian Institute of Technology for the next five years.
Pursuing post-graduate study, she then commenced her Masters degree in Education Administration at Harvard University in 1985 and went on to complete a Doctorate in Teaching and Learning.
Her passion for higher education and the Indigenous community saw her return to Australia to take up the position of Senior Lecturer in Aboriginal Studies at the South Australian College of Advanced Education. She later became Head of Aboriginal Studies and Teacher Education at the University of South Australia.
In 2001, she returned to Darwin to accept a position from Northern Territory University (now Charles Darwin University) as the Dean of the Faculty of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.
Reflecting back on that moment she said, “If I was told that I was going to come back to Darwin as a professor at the Northern Territory University I would have thought you were completely mad. Those things were beyond my wildest dreams.”
Mary Ann has been active researcher examining the construction of contemporary Aboriginal identity in Broome and Darwin and the influences of Asian migration in these areas. She has also followed the journeys of 13 high-achieving Indigenous women and recorded their stories in her book Aboriginal Women by Degrees which was published in 2000.
She has continued to be an advocate for Indigenous participation in higher education and has been involved in government, university and community advisory and review groups that have greatly influenced education and equity policies for Indigenous Australians. In 2008, she was made an Emeritus Professor of Charles Darwin University.
“It was very exciting times because we were able to cement a place at this university for Indigenous education and for Indigenous people… I think that Aboriginal Higher Education is in a good place now - right across the country,” she reflected on the anniversary of the University in 2014.
Not content with retirement she became the Pro Vice Chancellor of Indigenous Leadership at Western Sydney University in 2015 and has continued to serve as a director on numerous boards.