Charles Sturt University has launched ‘The Front Line’, a powerful video that explores the Indigenous student journey first-hand.
Laura Morelli

19 Sep 2016 - 2:34 PM  UPDATED 21 Sep 2016 - 10:47 AM
The alarm screeches - its 7am which means time to wake up all five kids and get them ready for school. One by one I go into their rooms, turn the lights on and pull the covers off. When everyone’s downstairs I have to supervise breakfast while also make myself a coffee. Together we sit down, make sandwiches and pack lunch boxes.
Doing the girls hair is a complete nightmare, there’s knots, crying and brushes going everywhere. While the kids do their teeth I manically get myself dressed while screaming out ‘hurry up.’ Getting out the front door is tricky, especially with my 8-year-old whose slower than a snail. Of course my youngest is the boss of our family. The 5-year-old has to do everything herself so when you’re in a rush it never helps. Finally when everyone is washed, dressed, fed, and seated in the car - I drop them to the bus stop.
Now it’s time to go to university.                          
                                                                                   - Michelle Miller, Full time mother and University Student

'The Front Line' was developed and produced by 13 CSU students who are the first in their family to attend university. The video is the result of a collaborative project with the help of Desert Pea Media and Bathurst Wiradyuri Elders.

The students involved are also the stars of the production and NITV News got up close and personal with Michelle Miller, a mother of five, a wife and now a full time student who has always wanted to go to university.

“To better myself, to break the cycle and to show my children you are not restricted by your age, or by the colour of your skin. It's never too late, it all comes down to choice, and for me quitting is not an option."

Michelle finished school in 1995 and was accepted into university but decided to have a gap year.

"I was 18 and wanted to chill out but one gap year soon turned into two and then three. Soon after I met a boy who became my husband in 1999. I had our first child in 2003 and in that same year we became registered fostered parents so I was balancing fostering Aboriginal children and also having my own daughter.

Michelle was a full time stay at home mum but knew she wanted to do more.  

"When my youngest daughter turned three I decided that I had to do something else, I just wasn’t sure what I was meant to do. I ended up studying at TAFE, where I completed my Assistant In Nursing course. I enrolled into a Bachelor of Clinical Science and Paramedics at Charles Sturt University and was accepted. It was surreal, I thought I was too old but I realised it wasn’t about my background or my age – it was just about who I was on paper."

Michelle loves her family and loves studying but says balancing everything has been difficult.

"Running a household with five children is just chaotic. The children age between 13,11,8 and 5 - you just don’t have a minute to yourself. My husband works shift work and I need to make time for study as well as maintain the house, make time for cooking and drop the kids off to school, pick them up and take them to co-curricular activities, but as a family we all make it work," she said

"I’ve had to drop two classes because they were ending late at night and it was becoming too hard to manage the household and study. Despite falling behind at uni it hasn’t deterred me from studying. I look at it as a challenge that I'm willing to accept."

Out of her entire family, Michelle is the only one to have graduated from high-school. 

"I am the eldest of 11 and I am the only one that finished year 12. None of the others went past Year Nine or Eight in high-school. Three of my brothers have been in and out of jail their whole entire life. They were caught up in drugs and all sorts of things like that. The problem is that they’re still living in this cycle of poverty and they wont get out of it."

Studying hard has really paid off for Michelle.

"I didn’t meet my father until I was 19 and now we have a really good relationship. He knows about everything I’ve done and he told me he’s never been more proud of me. Hearing that makes it all worth it. Knowing that my determination to make a better life for myself and my family is really empowering."

Her efforts don't go unnoticed, her daughter already has aspirations to finish school and go to uni too.

"Ever since Charlotte was seven she looked at me and said: 'I want to be a palaeontologist.' I had no idea what that was, and I thought wow my 7 year old is explaining to me what a palaeontologist is...Charlotte asked me if I thought she could do it and I said to her: 'you can be whatever you want to be - if you make sure you work hard for it'."

Michelle wants to encourage all of her children to do what they want after school. 

"My eldest boy is now finishing year 12 and he doesn’t know what to do and we’ve told him that doesn’t matter, he doesn’t need to make a decision right now and that we will support him in whatever he does."

Education plays a huge role in Michelle's family, and for her son David, he couldn't be more thankful of the opportunity he was given to go to a good school and study. 

"David has been in foster care since the age of 5. His parents are full Aboriginal and no one else from his family have ever been educated. We’ve told him that you have to work so much harder –because of his skin colour, he is judged, because he is a ward of the state, he’s always been behind everyone else but we never made him feel different. He is and always will be a part of our family. He calls us mum and dad, he calls the kids his brothers and sisters and if we go anywhere he is always with us. We’ve never made him feel like a foster child because he is our son.

When he got into his teenage years he started getting involved in the wrong crowd so we decided to send him to boarding school and this was the best decision we ever made. On a family trip last year we were sitting around the fire and David says: 'mum, dad I want to talk to you.' My husband and I looked at each other in a panic. David looked at us and said

'thank you. Thank you mum and dad for sending me to boarding school, I have learnt so much and I am better for it.'

"He said he noticed a lot of Aboriginal boys and kids his age walking around the streets instead of studying, using bad language and rebelling. He said he knows he needs to work for what he gets because of the colour of his skin and that pushes him to work harder."

Being Aboriginal makes Michelle proud but nothing makes her happier then when her kids acknowledge and respect the history and traditions of culture.

"My kids are the only Aboriginal students at their local school and they get to do the acknowledgement of country before assembly. Each and every one of them love getting up there, my youngest daughter can’t wait to get up there and do it – and it’s so great to see everyone in my family embrace their culture and really take on their Aboriginal heritage. We encourage all our kids to start somewhere and that no matter what they pick, we will be behind them.

Once Michelle learnt 'The Front Line’ documentary focused on the first child in the family to go to uni she knew this was something for her. 

"It was at that point where reality hit me and I thought to myself I am the first in my family - to finish high school, to get to Tafe, to be accepted into a university," she said.

"It all hit me at once, I became so emotional and thought it is worth telling my side of the story - yes I might be 40-years-old but I’m not too old to study, I can still make a difference not just in my life but my children’s and my community."

‘The Front Line’ highlights an Indigenous students journey but Michelle wants it to also remind elder Indigenous women that they too can do anything.  

"For me I think this doco is going to show the older generation of women to look at it and say yes: she can do it, I can do it and It doesn’t have to be a uni degree, even if it was to attend Tafe courses or get a certificate in something. It’s great for small communities and year 12 students leaving school, especially those who don’t know what they’re doing now, but to know that age is not a restriction and that they can study whenever they want.

Sneak peak at other Indigenous stories included:

Mr Michael Graham: "They say education is the key, but they keep changing the locks."

Ms Jackie Burke: "I went in blind, I took a risk, I left country, I jumped in the deep end… I could have drowned but I chose to swim."

Mr Isaac Nowland: "It all comes down to choice, it's hard to lead the way when you're searching for direction. People even judge you when you're white."

Mr Marley Blair: "…The bottom line is this: only 40 per cent of our mob finish high school, seven out of 10 of our young people will end up in jail, and there's only one way to make change for my people and that's to do it myself."