Kirsten Tapine has always been fond of a saying from the Dalai Lama: “Give the ones you love wings to fly, roots to come back and reasons to stay.”
“That pretty much captures my family, and my culture – and why I do what I do today,” says Kirsten, a proud Gamilaroi Yuwaalaraay woman.
“There’s a closeness embedded in Aboriginal culture that means if one succeeds, all succeed – that’s a wonderful way to live.”
Helping her community to succeed is what Kirsten hopes to do in her new role as the Business Manager for the Office of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leadership and Strategy (OATSILS) at the University of Canberra – but she has been a part of the UC community for longer, having graduated with a double degree in Commerce and Information Technology from UC in 2018.
Born in Dubbo, NSW, Kirsten has always maintained a strong connection to country.
“My mob are from Goodooga, north west NSW, where my dad grew up and my grandparents still live. I grew up between there and Dubbo,” she says.
“From a young age, my parents instilled it in me to be proud of who I am as an Aboriginal person. Being an Aboriginal woman is something I hold very close to my heart – I come from a strong and resilient bloodline, with a rich history and a beautiful connection to land, family and spirit.”
Kirsten’s great-grandmother was one of the Stolen Generation, taken from her family when she was just three. It’s a story that too many Aboriginal people are familiar with, and Kirsten says that the resulting intergenerational trauma is not going away any time soon.
“It has impacted our whole family – we lost so much knowledge and a sense of identity, because of all that was taken away from my great-grandmother,” Kirsten says. “It continues to impact us. When we lose an elder, we lose an entire library.”
“Growing up, my sister Tanisha and I always tried our best to learn more about our culture. We are very grateful and lucky to have our grandparents especially – with Nan and Pop out at Goodooga, we always have our roots to go back to. Storytelling is a big part of our culture, and my grandparents are both great storytellers.
While studying, Kirsten worked with Widening Participation at UC – and found another connection to her Aboriginal culture.
“I was working with disadvantaged students, showing them that pathways to university were an option – and many of these students were from Aboriginal communities,” she says.
A cadetship with the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) while still studying at UC led to Kirsten becoming part of the graduate program there, and then on to a full-time permanent position. But her mind kept turning to memories of the life-changing work she had done with Widening Participation.
“Last year, UC’s Ngunnawal Centre invited me to speak at a Year 12 students’ celebration dinner, as an alumna,” she says. “With the connection I felt in the room that night, that was the moment that made me realise I wanted to switch careers completely, to one in which I could make a positive impact on my community, and fulfil my purpose as an Aboriginal person.
“I want to show my community that there are many pathways to success, ways to realise their potential, and this line of work has made me feel an even stronger connection to my culture.”
It’s important to be a reflection of possibilities, to show a way forward by example. “We have great role models for the Aboriginal community in certain areas, like sports – Cathy Freeman is an amazing example,” Kirsten says.
“But the Aboriginal community is very under-represented in certain industries like IT, for instance – and even more so when it comes to Aboriginal women. When I was studying at UC, I was the only Aboriginal woman doing that particular double degree.”
“That’s why it’s so important and inspiring for me to see someone like Tom Calma as my Chancellor – and it’s a massive part of the reason I came back to UC. People like Tom and Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous, Professor Peter Radoll have helped to create such a respectful culture here, I feel welcome and comfortable as an Aboriginal person – we have a voice here, which is integral to us, because we have been silenced in the past.”
Kirsten has joined a university with a dedicated focus to diversity and inclusivity – and which has marked the proud milestone of reaching 2 per cent Indigenous staff employment.
“Our target is to reach 3 per cent, but our current employment rate is remarkable, considering that the ACT has an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population of just 1.2 per cent,” says Peter.
To Kirsten, representation is an important factor in increasing participation and engagement within the community.
“It’s important for the whole community, to see someone who looks like them in these spaces. And when they follow their pathways in turn, to whatever success means for each of them – I’ll be there, cheering them all along the way.”
Kirsten is looking forward to a lifelong journey of connecting with and learning more about her culture.
“The first chance I get after COVID-19 restrictions lift, I’m heading to the National Library of Australia – I recently found out that there may be some recordings of my great-grandfather there,” she says.
It’s important to Kirsten to reclaim as much as she can, not just for herself, but for the children in her future.
“My husband is a Tuhoe Maori man from New Zealand – so our relationship is a coming together of two Indigenous cultures, which I think is amazing,” she says. “It is important that we pass down our knowledge surrounding both our cultures, the histories, traditions and stories that have been carried down through generations. I never want my future children to be unsure of their identities, or to feel disconnected.”
Most of all, she wants them to feel “a great sense of belonging, by being on country and knowing they are home.”
Words by Suzanne Lazaroo, photos: supplied