Schoolies week. Perhaps the most anticipated week for high school graduates around Australia. Some kids remain close to home, whilst others voyage to the legendary Surfers Paradise and other sleepy coastal towns, in hopes of making memories that will last a lifetime. But for my two friends Sina and Justin and I, we had the option to skip out on a week of drunken shenanigans to instead spend a week in the Northern Territory.
Each of us were approached by the New South Wales Treasurer Dominic Perrotet in early June with the offer to attend his annual Hawkesbury Hills Student Leader Service Project to the Northern Territory, from 24-30 November 2018.
After accepting this offer, we attended monthly mentor dinners that featured a speech from notable Australians such as businessman David Gonski, fashion designer Carla Zampatti and Bunnings CEO Michael Schneider. These mentor dinners served as a social space to meet and form friendships with the other 24 student leaders with whom we would be travelling, as well as a space to develop our leadership skills.
As we left the cool winds of Sydney behind, we were soon met with the unforgiving heat of the Australian outback three hours later when we landed at Alice Springs Airport in Yulara.
Our seven-day stay would be dedicated to painting and restoring the classrooms at the lmanpa and Yulara campuses of Nyangatjatjara College. Our first three days were spent at the Yulara campus. It was here that we re-painted their three classrooms that had not been renovated in 20 years! We also had the opportunity to meet with school kids and participate in the 8am school pick- up in the Mutijulu Community, which is usually closed off to visitors.
Each night we slept on the basketball court of the school in swags and sleeping bags, and watched the sun rise off Uluru each morning as we woke up to work.
Our next two days were spent at the lmanpa campus, which was a two-hour drive from Yulara. Here, we continued to restore the classrooms, but also restored their kitchen facilities and put on a barbeque for the community of 20 people.
Whilst at the lmanpa and Yulara campuses we had the opportunity to work with the students in their music and art classes, talking with them about their experiences of being a teenager in such a different climate from the one we were raised in.
To be able to have conversations throughout the trip with both the staff and students about the challenges they faced trying to provide and attain an education in an isolated area, truly provided a perspective on how lucky I was to be in the Northern Territory after completing thirteen years of schooling.
It became apparent that formal education was not encouraged within the communities, as we watched only 5 kids, and sometimes even less, come to school each day. To hear the stories of how each staff member found their way to the red dirt of the Northern Territory was amazing; but to hear how they found a reason and passion to stay was truly heart-warming. By learning more about their stories, it nurtured the appreciation I have for all the teachers and those people who invested in me as a student.
I don’t think I fully realised just how lucky I am to be able to be a high school graduate, and to be able to pursue further education, until I saw the lack of opportunity that kids in these communities face.
To spend seven days in these schools, surrounded by beautiful kids and the dedicated staff members of Nyangatjatjara College, was truly a privilege.
As I reflect upon my time spent there playing soccer games, having every white shirt I took be stained orange, and staying up until the early hours of the morning singing and laughing with my fellow leaders, I feel an immense longing to go back.
It was a thrilling experience and a schoolies that I’ll always remember and never regret.
Genevieve Lee is a parishioner of St Patrick’s Cathedral Parish, Parramatta.
With thanks to St Pat’s Matters.