Wiradjuri woman and University of Canberra Bachelor of Primary Education graduate, Natasha Lillywhite, was no stranger to adversity in her own education journey. Now, she’s joined the ranks of our valued primary education workforce to ensure she can make a difference in the lives of others.
Growing up with a father in the army, Natasha attended a number of schools in her early years, before her family settled in Canberra when she was in Year 8.
In the following years, Natasha suffered from a series of unfortunate sporting injuries; she tore a ligament in her knee and later, broke her ankle, which required her to undergo major ankle reconstruction surgery and use a knee scooter for months.
She found her mobility was severely limited and, as an avid competitive basketball player, she had also lost a large part of her life — she could no longer play the sport she loved.
At the time, she attended University of Canberra Senior Secondary College Lake Ginninderra and found it difficult to navigate the school’s bustling corridors and multiple two storey staircases; she was also finding it increasingly taxing to even attend class.
One of Natasha’s teachers could see that she was struggling and – determined to see her reach her potential – arranged for her to study at UC through UC Connect.
“She said to me, ‘I know you want to be a teacher and I know you will do great things, so we want to put you in this program,’” Natasha explains.
When it came to transitioning into a full-time degree, Natasha felt prepared and excited to take on the challenge. In her first year, she connected with the Ngunnawal Centre, the focal point for Indigenous students at UC, that aims to help students achieve academic success through educational programs and confidential support services.
“When I first started at UC, I got in touch with the Ngunnawal Centre and accessed tutoring through it, which really helped me,” Natasha says.
In her final year, she became a Gurumbul Champion – a student leader who helps with the delivery of events and planning, leadership opportunities and mentoring at the centre.
She wholeheartedly recommends the program to any Indigenous student starting with the University.
“It is intimidating to take the first step, but once you get in there, they’re so accepting. They can spin a yarn about anything and everything! No matter what your interests are, you’ll find common ground,” Natasha says.
She had many impactful experiences at university, but potentially none more so than lessons in Classroom Climate and Organisation a unit taught by Benny Wilson and Dr David Spillman.
“I remember on the first day, David and Benny said, ‘put your books away, put your laptops away, you’re not taking notes in this class – we just want you to be present,’” Natasha says.
“That was a game changer for me and honestly, I remember the most from their class – I think that’s because I was present and actively learning.
“They had us sit in a circle, instead of all sitting behind desks. They made the whole class feel like a family. It will always stand out to me as the best class I did at university.”
Natasha is now a qualified primary school teacher, and works in a small independent school in Mamu Country, Queensland.
One major difference between teaching in Queensland vs teaching in Canberra? The bird life.
As a Wiradjuri woman, who only began connecting with her own culture later in life, Natasha is incredibly passionate about supporting her students to learn in a culturally aware manner. She too, is still learning every day.
“Having my own classroom has been fulfilling,” she says.
“My school teaches the local language. I sit in the back of the class and learn along with them and some of the time, almost forget that I'm there to help with the management of the class!”
As an Indigenous woman, Natasha also brings an important lens to her teachings and works hard to ensure that she delivers culturally aware education.
“It’s extremely important to be culturally aware and have that understanding of where they come from and what has happened in their families, who like my family, are part of the Stolen Generations,” she says.
“Kids can have hugely different levels of reading and writing skills, or they might be experiencing trauma or might not be able to afford food at home – it’s about catering to those needs, whether that means I make sure they can eat breakfast and lunch at school or look for culturally relevant resources that represent them. I have a lot of Indigenous picture books that show people, culture and places.”
In her mission to make a difference, Natasha is not only working on the frontline, impacting her students directly, but has plans to take one day take it higher – she hopes that once she’s gained crucial on-the-ground experience, she’ll be able to represent the best interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children at the highest level.
“I think I want to become an education minister, to help make big changes across our education system, and continue to develop our knowledge of being culturally responsive in schools.”
Words by Kelly White, photos by Tyler Cherry and supplied.
This September, the University of Canberra would like to congratulate the graduating class of 2022.
We are so glad we can celebrate your journey – you have grown in so many ways, and risen to meet challenges with grace and creativity.
Many of you are already impacting your chosen fields, while others embark on the postgraduate study path.
We are so proud of you all, and we can't wait to see what you will do next.