Ashleigh Johnstone and the UOW/AIME PhD Scholarship
One of the first things you learn as an Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME) presenter is that storytelling is the most powerful tool you possess. With that in mind, for this piece I thought I would share some of my personal higher education story. Though readers should beware that linear timelines are something that have never quite made sense in my own somewhat scattered mind.
My name is Ashleigh Johnstone, and I am currently undertaking my PhD with the University of Wollongong. My family are the Dunghutti people, and this has been a huge influence on my passion for Indigenous research. I live in the beautiful coastal city of Wollongong.
After being fortunate enough to work for AIME as a Program Assistant for the Nowra, Batemans Bay and Bega regions, I now have the opportunity to study AIME itself, and write about what I know to be an incredible opportunity for Indigenous high school kids in Australia.
My PhD revolves around understanding the unique learning environment that AIME cultivates as well as the history of its foundation.
How did I get here? My path to higher education has been, like many other Aboriginal students, a journey.
Through high school, I struggled immensely with attendance and deadlines. A habit that has not yet been entirely broken. For myself (and I suspect for many of us), going to university was something that didn’t make much sense. I was going to leave school and be a florist or a vet nurse. For a very long time, the only real driving force to even attempt my ATAR was to compete with my older sister who had achieved a frustratingly high score. But that changed when my Nan started putting university graduation photos of my cousins and siblings up on the wall in her house. You see, only the family members who wore their cap and gown and held their graduation certificates made it on the wall. Well! Now I had a solid reason to get into university. I needed to be on that wall. If my family members could do it, then obviously I could do it too.
After eventually pulling myself together, I managed to get my ATAR and even scored a place at UOW. I deferred for a year and worked two jobs while also attending (sometimes) TAFE for the first year of the vet nurse diploma. I also did a distance education course on medical office administration. (I don’t know what possessed me to do this other then that working in a doctors surgery seemed like it would be an interesting job with the bonus of a lot of jellybeans.)
After actually starting at UOW, I was very quickly overwhelmed. I was studying a Bachelor of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts, and I lacked any motivation to attend class or do assessment tasks. It was through my Arts degree that I found my real passion. I needed one more first year subject for my Arts degree and the only thing that fit my timetable was an Indigenous Studies unit. After that first class, I knew I wanted to be doing Indigenous Studies full time. I dropped Journalism and focused on Indigenous Studies and History.
A few years (and a lot of tears) later and I have graduated. My photo is on my Nan’s wall, and now I couldn’t be more thrilled with where my university journey has led.
It was while working for AIME in my last year of university that I met the UOW research team. They were coming along to my program days in Nowra and Bega when one of the team members, Sam, started asking me about my post-uni plans. The idea of a PhD was firmly planted in my brain at this point, and despite a few late nights finishing assessments and swearing to never, ever, ever attempt any more education ever, I have now begun on the PhD path.
I think that too often we assume that people are aware of the opportunities that are available to them or that people who secretly dream of big futures will find their way without guidance or support. I know that if it weren’t for AIME giving me the support to pursue my dreams, and for the research team at UOW for giving me this opportunity, I would have struggled much more to reach this point in my life.
I am extremely grateful to AIME for the opportunities they have given me, and to the UOW team for providing an amazing supervision team who understand and share my passion for researching this ‘AIME’ thing.