It was a special moment for the Kirk mob when Michael Kirk became the first member of his family to graduate from university, at the University of New England Autumn Graduation ceremonies.
“It was a big deal and a very proud day for me,” said Michael, a Kamilaroi man who grew up in Glen Innes. But perhaps not as memorable as his final practical last year at Moree Public, in the north-western NSW town in which he was born.
“A lot of my younger cousins were in the class and they saw me not as a teacher’s aide or as a tutor, but as a teacher,” Michael said. “Being a teacher carries a lot of responsibility but I hope it was inspiring for those kids to see how far you can take your education. It was certainly a thrill for me.”
Other members of Michael’s family have now enrolled in university studies, and while the humble graduate is reluctant to take credit for that, he hopes his pathway demonstrates what’s possible.
Michael had been working as a casual tutor for Aboriginal students at Glen Innes High School for two years when he completed the TRACKS tertiary preparation program offered by UNE’s Aboriginal Centre Oorala. He enrolled in the Bachelor of Education (K-12 teaching) course a year later.
“The first year was really, really hard and I failed quite a few units, but I hit back in my second year and passed every unit after that,” Michael said. “It was a case of finding my feet, and the style of study and organisation that suited me. It’s been an up-and-down ride, but I knew from first-hand experience the positive difference that teachers could make.
“I wasn’t an A-grade student at school, but I was lucky in that I had teachers who believed in me and my abilities. And I always had a go; for me it was more important to do my best than anything else.”
At UNE Michael threw himself into university life and became the co-founding president of the Indigenous Student Association and an elected student representative on the University Council. “It’s very easy to become negative about matters, but I always sought to have a positive attitude and to take a collaborative approach; to go into every discussion with a potential solution for the people I represented,” he said. “Taking on leadership roles gave me the chance to meet lots of other students and staff across the university. Attending the University Indigenous Games was a highlight, too, as I got to build networks with other Indigenous students from around Australia.”
Oorala director Greg Davison said Michael has been a conduit for the success of other Indigenous students. “All of us at Oorala are thrilled at Michael’s success and know that he will make an enormous contribution to our communities,” Greg said.
In his first teaching role, at Westlawn Public School in Grafton, Michael is enjoying teaching a science and PDHPE class. “It’s been a real eye-opener,” he said. “I try to practise what former UNE Chancellor John Watkins once said to me: ‘Kindness in everyday life gives you great rewards and peace of mind, so it always pays to be kind’.”
Michael is grateful to Max Schroder for his scholarship and help, and to ITAS tutor Andrea Watson for her personal and academic support throughout his studies at UNE.