Katelyn Mills, 24, is a Gamilaraay woman studying a Master’s of Research in Education. She is from Moree, NSW, and lives in Sydney. She spoke to Daisy Dumas about being First in Family having graduated from Macquarie University in 2020 with a Bachelor of Education, majoring in Biology and Chemistry.
“University felt in reach and out of reach. Growing up in Moree, my family didn’t put too much value towards education - if we weren’t up for going to school my parents didn’t really mind. I think that’s what motivated me to go to school, it gave me a sense of independence and structure I didn’t have at home. I’ve always looked up to my teachers and they inspired me to become a teacher.
As I got older, those dreams seemed more and more unattainable. As I learned more about the education system, the discrepancies between metropolitan and rural schools, and the public and private sectors, I lost a bit of hope for my future.
As I learned more about the education system, the discrepancies between metropolitan and rural schools, and the public and private sectors, I lost a bit of hope for my future.
When you’re in a country town, you understand you’re not going to receive the quality of education that you deserve. Moree is a place where a lot of teachers come to gain their experience and then leave. I thought ‘I’ll come back here and show you all how to do it!’
I had this drive to go to university, and I needed to work hard for my marks. During my preliminary and HSC years, my parents went through a separation that really impacted me, and I couldn’t perform to my greatest potential.
My mum’s side is Spanish and white, and my dad’s side is Gamilaraay. At school I could really embrace my culture, there were Aboriginal excursions and meetings, and that was important for me because I come from what feels like two worlds. I identify as Aboriginal more than as white, but because I’m so light-skinned, I’ve always been told ‘You’re not Aboriginal, you look white’.
When you’re Aboriginal, no matter how milky, and you’re in the place you’ve grown up, on your land, you have this sort of unexplainable connection to it. It’s hurtful being told what you are and what you’re not by someone who doesn’t understand this connection. Ultimately, I think that’s what helped me pursue science - I'm very much into learning about the land. Biology was always my favourite, and although genetics is my specialisation, sustainability and the natural Australian ecosystem is a major interest of mine.
When you’re Aboriginal, no matter how milky, and you’re in the place you’ve grown up, on your land, you have this sort of unexplainable connection to it. It’s hurtful being told what you are and what you’re not by someone who doesn’t understand this connection.
I was contacted by Macquarie University to complete an alternative entry into a degree. I told my mum the day before I left Moree about my exam - it shocked her a little. But as soon as I told my whole family, they really embraced it. Especially my nan on my dad’s side, she was so proud. She tried to pursue university but wasn’t able to. She’s also light skinned and people would say racist things in front of her, not expecting her to be Aboriginal, and she would stand up to them.
Without alternative entry, I would have had a completely different life, there’s no way I could have got to university. The morning after the exam, I had an email telling me I had been accepted. I can’t even explain how it made me feel, I was shaking and my whole body was just light.
It was the second time I had been to Sydney - the first time was my year five excursion - and a month later I moved into Macquarie University Village. I had no money and my mum didn’t have a lot of resources of her own, but she gave me all she could. As she drove away, she was bawling her eyes out. I pretended to shed a tear and wipe it away but I was so excited I couldn’t cry.
I had no money and my mum didn’t have a lot of resources of her own, but she gave me all she could. As she drove away, she was bawling her eyes out.
It took me a few months to figure out life in the city. Moree takes seven minutes to drive across but a bus across campus took 20 minutes - and to wait 10 minutes for a bus felt like a lifetime. And I didn’t know I had to stand on the left on the escalator.
I also didn’t understand how to ‘do’ university until the end of my second year. People who go to university tend to have educational capital - they know how to do it because they’ve been trained since school. I didn’t know how to study, how to summarise a text, or how to write an academic reference list. My confidence was shot down a few times, but I got the hang of it in time.
To me, Aboriginal culture is very scientific and looking at things on a molecular level has changed my whole perspective. In the classroom, I want to present scientific concepts through an Aboriginal lens. I want to ignite that sense of ‘I haven’t thought about the world that way’.
I have a little cousin who said, ‘I want to go to university like Kate.’
I used to feel this weight on my chest that I needed to do something important. Ultimately, it’s what motivates me - and I’ve found a way to balance that anxiety with letting myself make mistakes too. Perfect doesn’t exist.
I have a little cousin who said, ‘I want to go to university like Kate.’ I didn’t think people were watching me, but I realise I could actually be a role model for her and the rest of my family - and I don’t want to do a half-hearted job of it.”