I broke through - so can you
Jessa Rogers, PhD ’18, has a passion for education and its role in the empowerment of Aboriginal women. In the keynote speech to this year’s Commencement, she told students and staff about the challenges in her life and how they made her strong. Here is an edited extract of her speech.
Push ahead, regardless of others’ expectations and those who doubt you.
I will never forget one of my first meetings here as a PhD student when a man told me it was unlikely I would finish my PhD because the statistics showed that Aboriginal people didn’t usually finish!
Fortunately, I have never taken other peoples’ expectations of me to my heart – I know that for most of my life, like many women, I have been underestimated.
This is my first message: only you have the power to determine what you achieve – no one else. You can be whatever, and whomever, you wish to be. That said, as a woman, I know I face additional challenges – not because I lack the skills or qualities of a leader, but because the systems and structures we work within privilege men. They also privilege white people.
Being a leader means sharing your story, with the knowledge you will not always be supported by those who should support you. This is a lesson I learnt early.
When I was 16, starting year 12 on a low-income scholarship, I fell pregnant. I graduated that year with a 10-day-old baby and an ATAR in the high 90s. Countless times that year, teachers and doctors told me I probably wouldn’t achieve that goal.
But all journeys have challenges and it is actually these challenges that make us who we are. Being a pregnant teenager completing year 12 prepared me for a future challenge – becoming one of Australia’s youngest Aboriginal school principals and opening the first school for Indigenous mums and babies in Far North Queensland, the Cape York Girl Academy.
My second point is – don’t be held back by low expectations of others, by those who underestimate you or the systems that make it difficult to succeed. And don’t let your doubts hold you back.
My son Eden was raised pretty much under the computer desk at QUT – because I couldn’t afford my own computer – while I studied to make a better life for him. At some point I realised I was not alone because I was taking someone with me. I wanted more for my son than for me.
When I graduated in that double degree with first class honours, top of my class, I thought back to my entrance interview. A professor said he was sceptical I would succeed given my circumstances, but he would ‘give me a chance’.
I reflected that if I could achieve my goals, then anyone could, and how could I share my journey so others who were struggling could achieve their goals.
Working with young Aboriginal women, however, became my passion. What helped for several years in that role was the college Elder who took me under her wing and strengthened me.
Many of those girls succeeded, but one dropped out.
That girl, Sharle Anna, was the great-granddaughter of Oodgeroo Noonuccal. She had travelled nearly four hours a day to get to school and had no power connected in her island home. When I left that school to start lecturing, I could not forget her.
In my first year lecturing, I completed my Masters, while working full-time.
My journey as a junior academic at the time was becoming increasingly difficult without a PhD. I looked for opportunities and applied for a study tour that visited major universities in the UK and US, including Oxford and Cambridge, looking at postgrad options.
Something changed in me when I met with academics in those universities. When they encouraged me to apply, I doubted myself. But, with the support of a female mentor at my workplace, I applied at Cambridge anyway. In 2014 I was accepted into a PhD at Cambridge University!
I still have that acceptance letter because it reminds me that support, encouragement and finding great mentors changes everything.
Most recently, my mentors supported me in successfully applying for a Fulbright Scholarship. I could never have achieved such an opportunity without their support. During my time at Harvard, I received an email that read: “Jessa, we wanted to let you know that a student you enrolled at Girl Academy has just delivered a speech at her year 12 graduation, thanking you for believing in her.” That student was Sharle Anna, the one who had previously dropped out of school.
When I opened the Cape York Girl Academy, I called her and enrolled her because I believed in her and knew she believed in herself.
My point here is – find your champions, mentors who inspire you and believe in you. And be a champion of others. If you live in a residential college, like I did at Toad Hall, you can mentor others in your community there. My mentors and supporters are the reason I am who I am, and where I am today. Finally, my time at ANU was pivotal in my life – not least because I met my husband here!
Your journey here will be what you make of it. I liken this to a poem by Linda Ellis, The Dash, regarding the line on a tombstone between the year you were born and the year you died. What we achieve in this life is up to us. On your journey, take others with you – reach through the walls that you smash to help others through.
As Ellis says, It matters not, how much we own, the cars, the house, the cash.
What matters is how we live, and love, and how we spend our dash.
…when your eulogy is being read, with your life’s actions to rehash.
Would you be proud of the things they say about how you spent your dash?
All of you have made it this far, to Australia’s number one University. This is your moment, and you have earnt it. Push ahead, regardless of others’ expectations and those who doubt you.
Find great mentors who will encourage you – many of them are here amongst you. ANU has great staff who will be your champions.
Use your enormous potential to improve the lives of others, because we live in a world built on privilege and inequality, right here in Australia. As an ANU student, you will be equipped to make a positive difference in our world.When you sit down to reflect on your life one day, I am sure your time at ANU will have been instrumental. But, as wonderful as this place is – and it really is a great university and Canberra is a great city too – what you get from your ANU experience is really up to you. So make the most of it, and enjoy it too!