Tyra Petersen dreaded ‘school photos’ day, more so, she reckons, than the average 7-year-old growing up in the Australian Capital Territory.
There was always such a fuss about her hair.
“There are photos of me in Year 3, or I think even younger than that, where I had my baby frizzy hairs,” she said. “The photographers would spray water and comb it down. So, it just looked… not good.”
“People thought that those comments or actions were in my best interest.”
Now on the verge of turning 19, Petersen paused to consider why she had acquiesced to hairstyle intervention not typically offered to her white Australian peers.
“Obviously when I was in Year 2, I wasn’t going to be like, ‘What are you doing?’ At the time, I did think it was in my best interest.”
Petersen was the only First Nations student in her class in Year 2. Indeed throughout her primary and secondary school days, there would be only a handful of First Nation Australians in the same year.
Future photographers would be more subtle. They’d ask her to tie her hair back, hiding it behind her face. Her peers made comments as well. She cut her hair short to avoid the issue.
“I was expected to change or hide parts of myself to fit the standard,” Petersen said.
Was is truly in her best interest to yield to those standards? School photos were a yearly reminder of a question she faced almost daily, with increasing awareness as she grew older.
“I’m very privileged to be surrounded by my family and my culture,” Petersen said. “There are a lot of people in my life who have instilled pride and passion about who I am as a person and my identity. I needed to rely on my roots a lot to stay strong and stay true to who I was. It’s hurtful and it’s a hard experience to be integrated into a Westernised system that isn’t yours.”
In her final years of high school, she thought about going into teaching expecting this would be a way to offer support for children from marginalised communities at a crucial stage in their lives.
“Anyone who doesn’t meet fit the standard, that’s who I want to help,” she said.
Personal, professional journeys meet at ANU
By the time Petersen graduated from high school in 2021, she had concluded that institutions in Australia aren’t made for people like her. Her marks were good, particularly in her final year, but going on to university was still an open question.
“I don’t mean to talk bad about high school,” Petersen said. “But my experience in high school was the reason I knew that I was not ready to go straight into a university setting. I was just done with learning in that particular format. I needed time to regroup.”
Petersen turned to her mum for guidance. Fiona Cornforth had previously worked at The Australian National Univeristy (ANU) Tjabal Indigenous Higher Education Centre, and sent her daughter information about the Diversity and Inclusion Service Assistant Cadetship at the ANU College of Engineering, Computing and Cybernetics (CECC).
The job was for recent high school graduates seeking experience and professional development, and it would be embedded in the College’s office of Diversity Belonging Inclusion and Equity (DBIE), led by renowned sociologist Professor Meredith Nash.
Candidates should be able to “provide robust,personalisedfeedbackandinput… supporting therepresentation andachievement ofFirst Nations peoples advancingthe College’s and University’s strategic goals”.
The job description validated in glorious detail Petersen’s critique of high school and, more importantly, articulated a mission to change that for the College, the University, and even the world.
An interview was conducted via remote, which Petersen said saved her from stressing out about her attire “because I really only had to worry about the top half being presentable”.
After fielding questions about her outlook and her interests, she was offered the chance to ask a question in return.
“I asked what a typical day would be like, and no one actually knew because it had never been done before,” she said.
A week later, Petersen was just about to start a shift serving frozen custard at a local shop when she got a phone call offering her the job.
“It just such a feeling of accomplishment,” Petersen said. “I Facetimed my Mum straight away and she was so happy for me. And then I went about making ice cream for the next 6 hours.”
Finding purpose in paving way for others
Now in her final weeks of the cadetship (her last day is 2 March), Petersen says the experience has impacted her life in many positive ways.
She saw firsthand how world-leading experts and leaders at CECC sought out diversity and inclusion not just in the name of fairness, but also in the name of innovation and excellence.
“When the professors form research teams here, they look for diversity because they don’t want to overlook something,” Petersen said. “That’s one of the biggest things I’ve learnt in my cadetship.”
Representing the College and working directly with students from low-income families and with students from the LGBTQI+ community opened her eyes to the obstacles they faced, as well as the increased potential in store for them and for the university as those obstacles are overcome.
“Being in the conversation and learning about how those exclusions and those old policies affect people now — that was really eye opening. That was the switch for me,” she said, “We all want the same thing, which is just to be respected as people and as our true selves, to be valued in institutions like universities.
Petersen said she enjoyed working on communications products, such as a video about the launch of the Bandalang Studio, to which she contributed a First Nations perspective to go with newly acquired video editing skills.
“What I love about this position is helping make ANU a safe environment for all, including historically excluded groups,” Petersen said. “Institutions like universities aren’t built for First Nations people. I think this cadetship is a really good program for introducing First Nations ways of thinking into the work life and into strategies to make environments more equitable.”
The year she spent with CECC has renewed her passion for learning. It’s also instilled a belief that institutions such as the education system, while not built for First Nations people, can and will be reformed to do a better job of including and benefitting from their knowledge.
Growing into a leadership role
It took some time to used to her new surroundings. “If you asked me a few months into the job what it was all about, I couldn’t have told you,” she said.
When the College decided to hold a video competition for one of its social media channels, Petersen was asked to be the lead on the project. “That was where I felt a sense of ‘yeah, I belong here’ and everything I’ve learned and all the people I’ve met has prepared me to lead and deliver project.”
Although her youth and her heritage have proven a valuable source of insight and perspective, Petersen said that she hasn’t been limited by that which makes her unique among professional staff members.
“I haven’t felt like a token of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge,” Petersen said. “I’ve felt valued and I haven’t felt pressured to know everything about First Nations culture and or pressured to educate everyone else about what I know.”
“This job and what I’ve learnt here has helped me feel that my whole self is valuable and we need people like me and to be here.”
During high school, she expected to spend two years away from learning institutions like universities. But she’s changed her mind after spending a year surrounded by colleagues and mentors who are devoting their careers to improving them.
Often mistaken for a student, Petersen says “working on a university and having interactions with students made me want to go to university”.
Orientation Week begins at the end of February at Australian Catholic University, where she will study a Bachelor of Education (primary and secondary).
The cadetship, she said, has taught her to think of her diverse background (hair issues and all) as attributes to celebrate; not deficits to hide.
Whether in high school, on the football field, or with her family, she had always felt like she needed to subsume parts of herself to make others comfortable or to fit in.
“I’ve been a part of and contributed to building an environment where your whole self is valued and there’s no point in trying to hide pieces of yourself, or conform to who you think you need to be,” she said. “If you are not fully you, you aren’t as valuable as you can be.”