There’s no doubting Emma Peterson’s dedication to her school work — she won the academic award at Kalgoorlie Girls Academy four times — but her strength of character is also proving a winner.
The 18-year-old, who graduated from Eastern Goldfields College last year, was one of three students awarded a prestigious tertiary scholarship which will provide $8000 a year toward the cost of their degrees.
Phil Paioff, the coordinator of the Gold Fields Australia Aboriginal Tertiary Scholarship Program, says while successful applicants had to have strong attendance and grades, with preference given to students from the Goldfields region, they also had to demonstrate contributions to the wider community.
“They have to show some degree of wanting to do more than just look after themselves — their sense of community and good character is just as important as anything,” Phil says.
“Emma presented as a leader in the community. She became a role model by the time she was in year 10, so that held her in good stead, as did the references she got from the school and the Academy. They spoke very highly of her maturity and her leadership and her role model potential.”
Emma, who is starting a Bachelor of Criminology majoring in crime science and forensic biology and toxicology at Murdoch University, clearly took that role in the Academy seriously.
“I really liked how I could help the younger girls in their schooling. There was a couple of them who were also doing the university pathway who were struggling a bit, so if I didn’t have anything to do I’d stop and help,” she says. “It gave me I guess a sense of belonging because it showed me that I can help people in ways that they might not have been able to get help from others … because maybe they didn’t have the same personal connection as I did.”
Tammy O’Brien, the Kalgoorlie Girls Academy development officer for Eastern Goldfields College, says Emma led by example. “Emma was committed — Wednesdays were our study day and she never missed any of the workshops,” she says. “And she’d come into the Academy Room and do her work, and always sought help from Academy staff and the teachers.”
It wasn’t just the way Emma applied herself to her study that impressed Academy staff, either. “She was a delight, a very respectful, courteous young lady,” Tammy says.
“She was definitely a role model to the younger ones. If any of them came across as a little disrespectful she jumped on them and said we need to respect our elders and listen to their guidance. And I was grateful for that because when it’s coming from a student around the same age they will listen.”
For her part, Emma is grateful for the support of Girls Academy staff throughout high school, first at Kalgoorlie-Boulder Community High School and then EGC.
“They provided a lot of help in areas that other people wouldn’t generally get,” she says. “It was just having a place of support, especially EGC. I could always just go and see Tammy whenever I needed to or she’d come to a class and help me if I needed.”
Emma has also been inspired by two strong female role models closer to home, her mother Katrina (pictured above with Emma and Phil), and her older sister.
“In Perth, Mum worked at ALS (Aboriginal Legal Service) and helped people in that way, but when we moved back to Kal, Mum got a job as the regional manager of the courthouse, so seeing her step up into that role — I would have been about eight — really helped,” she says. “To see her be able to overcome things is very inspiring. And every day she’d come home from work and even though she’d be really tired, she’d cook us dinner, she’d do the dishes, she wouldn’t leave anything for the next day.”
It’s not hard to see that work ethic has rubbed off. “I’ve tried to bring that over with me since I’ve just moved out of home — I’m trying to live up to that now!”
After moving in with her sister, who works at Joondalup Children’s Court and is studying to be a primary school teacher, Emma is also looking for part-time work. She’s no stranger to juggling that with study, either, having worked part-time since she was 13, most recently at Bunnings in Kalgoorlie.
While she’s a little daunted at the prospect of uni, which involves an hour and half commute on the train from Kinross to Murdoch, Emma says she’s also excited about the chance to get stuck into a degree she hopes will ultimately help her people.
“It’s always interested me, forensics and that sort of thing. Most of the time when people think of criminology they think of people going to jail, drug testing and that kind of thing,” she says. “Whereas I’m more like if I can use a degree in forensics to help out in my community in some way. I want to be able to figure out if there is an underlying cause in all these high mortality rates and deaths in custody, because we’re a very small chunk of the Australian population and I want us to stay a chunk of the Australian population.”
The proud Indigenous student can trace her connections in the Goldfields back many, many generations on her mother’s side, something they discussed at length when Emma was preparing for the Gold Fields Australia interview. However, Emma says her fairer complexion means people are often surprised to discover she is Aboriginal.
“No matter how much milk you add to the tea it’s still tea — I say that every time,” she says. “There have been certain places where I’ve been treated differently when I’ve told them I’m Aboriginal because you wouldn’t really expect it if you looked at me.”
Emma is not one to let setbacks define her, however, and Girls Academy staff couldn’t be prouder of her dedication and perseverance. “I am very, very proud of her,” Tammy says. “She’s the one who has done all the hard work, I take my hat off to her. To see her pursue what she wanted in her studies is just wonderful.”