What Does a Saturday Night Look Like?

Rachel McVittie with HoS Prof Stephen FosterWe acknowledge that the land we walk on is Gadigal land. We pay our respects to elders past, present and emerging.

The School of Civil and Environmental Engineering would like to loudly applaud the astounding achievements of its first indigenous female engineer.

Rachel McVittie is a Martu woman who first walked the hallways of CVEN 6 years ago. After completing a Tertiary Preparation Certificate at TAFE, she was admitted to our engineering course on her ATAR score. She freely admits that, prior to her TAFE enrolment, she could hardly read or write.

So, to walk these hallways was a particularly daunting and ambitious task: entering a world where no indigenous woman had gone before. Now, as she looks back on a successful, eventful and challenging student life, she knows that it is through the support from certain members of the UNSW community that she weathered some pretty harsh storms. But just as she has been supported, so she offers her support to others in abundance, with a generosity and a wisdom beyond her years when she says “who is helping who?”

The people she will miss most are the CVEN professional staff who have understood her difficulties, provided solutions and offered emotional empathy. Rachel lost her dear mother whilst studying, and so it has been both a sad and a triumphant time. At her recent graduation ceremony, Rachel’s happiness was lined with a missing mother shaped grief. The professional staff have handled her journey through grief gently, in a culturally sensitive and re-assuring manner.  

The other team of people Rachel loves is from Nura Gili, the UNSW Indigenous Programs Unit. They gave Rachel a home in an intimidating world. She is now a Nura Gili ambassador, helping younger Aboriginal students feel empowered, hoping to make their academic journey a little smoother than her own.

During her studies, Rachel’s strength was in design, but, surprisingly, she has found herself attracted to construction in the real world. It is on work sites she has found not only the means to utilise theory, but life lessons in sustainability, egalitarianism, relationship building, business acumen and the clarity to define a peculiarly indigenous perspective on land and water use.

Rachel is a woman of firmly held and warmly articulated principle. One of her core beliefs is egalitarianism. “I come from a community where we were all poor, so we were all equal. At universities we could let go of the idea that if we restrict access, entry is more prestigious. Let’s share the knowledge.” This belief in equal access and equal worth guides her behaviour.

“On site I get on with the labourers best”, who provide direct insights from the coal face. “Many engineers might not ask a labourer for help or information, but if you want to estimate how much concrete is needed, how much to order, then ask the guy who pours the concrete. It saves time and money and reduces waste. He knows the materials. Often engineers don’t touch the materials and estimate from a distance.” Diminishing this social distance between engineer and labourer becomes a business asset for any employer.  

Another firmly held belief is diversity. “Lack of diversity is traditional. Women and indigenous kids want to do engineering but are put off by a belief that you have to be a maths genius. You don’t. I’m proof of that. Indigenous kids struggle with self-belief, as I did. They confuse disadvantage and trauma with lack of intelligence. Even when I got into uni, I constantly felt I had to prove that I was worthy of my place.”

It has become part of Rachel’s mission to encourage young disadvantaged people to believe that the road to success is not about inherent brilliance, but hard work. She tells the many CVEN students she mentors: “Put the phone away. Treat study like a nine-to-five job. Do the readings, do the work. Listen.” This is the kind of practical, hard won advice that they need in this strange academic world.

“Even putting aside the moral aspect of diversity, it makes business sense. If you have ten people, all the same gender, age and cultural background, all looking at a problem, you get ten similar answers. If you have ten people from diverse backgrounds you get a variety of answers, from which you can choose the best solution, usually a mixture.”

Ultimately, Rachel would like to find a job into which she can settle for a while, but for now she has been accepted into a two year engineering graduate program and she is delighted. Perhaps there could be a Masters degree in the future, but now she wants real life, practical experience.

She would also like to know what a Saturday night looks like without studying. She wants to chill with her community, taking time, having time. But she also wants to keep learning, keep reading, discovering more areas of engineering.

Whatever her future employment looks like it will need to provide the flexibility for outreach, because she intends to be active about the lack of indigenous and female voices in engineering.

The broader vision for her future involves not only helping to solve ongoing tensions in indigenous communities, but also articulating what an indigenous perspective could bring to engineering and the broader society: principles such as “community, compassion, empathy, resilience”. Engineering is an intellectually rigorous activity, “but it can be very black and white. It needs to be. I don’t want an engineer designing a bridge on how they feel, but this can mean we don’t debate enough, we don’t discuss other thought processes. Skills like empathy and negotiation are under-valued.”

We cannot solve indigenous issues until indigenous people are working on them together. There is a way to hold on to our past if we are the ones building our future.

“Aboriginal Australians prize the environment more than any engineering project. In this dollar driven world there are Aboriginal communities that could teach the rest of us so much about sustainability. On construction sites today, where is the indigenous view of this land? Environmentalism is not just about ticking boxes to comply with regulation, it is not a problem to be overcome. With more indigenous voices it could become a real discussion about impact.”

Rachel has been too busy studying to feel proud of her achievements, but her recent graduation ceremony did allow some reflection. “It was such an incredible day and everyone was so happy. I had so much support: even some of the labourers from my very first work placement came. The current students I tutor and Head of School Stephen Foster said ‘we are expecting big things from you’. It was nice that he acknowledged my ability.” To Professor Foster Rachel says “thank you for creating a safe and supportive learning environment not just for Indigenous students but for all disadvantaged students.”

Sometimes small things matter too. It is telling that Rachel McVittie is most proud of standing up and speaking out for change, even in little ways. “Speaking up can come at a high personal and professional cost, we all need to keep our jobs. But the biggest cost is when engineering, a discipline I love and admire, is out of line with my own morals. That’s too great a loss.”

A student like Rachel has so much to teach us about engineering and academic study. Her struggles have made her studies a brightly conscious journey and she knows “racism is not historical it is contemporary”. To help other disadvantaged students, she believes UNSW could take a more unified approach, so that all schools have an indigenous liaison officer. “How many students have we lost because the campus has not felt welcoming and safe?” How can we change attitudes, structures and regulations to truly assist students who feel marginalised?

Not only has Rachel overcome profound adversity, she has become mentor, role model and leader. Although ‘leader’ is a title she eschews. “I don’t call myself a leader. I don’t want anyone to feel I am above them. But I do feel I am where I am because of the support I have received. It doesn’t matter how hard you work, you cannot do it without someone believing in you, supporting you. Then you do the work. I have a responsibility to pass that knowledge on, because I know how it feels to love something, to want something and to feel you are not good enough.” What a woman.

To the School, on leaving, Rachel says: “Kristy and Lena, thank you for having the passion and commitment for equality and for Indigenous education. Thank you for being so kind and caring and for always going above and beyond in terms of supporting me. To Professor Attard, thank you for being an amazing role model and for showing me the type of Engineer I need to be. I hope I turn out to be even half the engineer you are.”

On her social media post on LinkedIn a few days after her graduation Rachel posted:

“Last Saturday I became the first Indigenous woman to graduate from the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, UNSW. An incredible achievement that wouldn’t have been possible without the support and encouragement of so many amazing people. To everyone that helped me change my life and achieve my dream I could never thank you enough.
Achievements such as this have a positive impact on our communities. When we aim high we teach the youth in our community to aim high. When we fail but never quit, we teach them that to be successful you must be determined to succeed despite the setbacks.
#IndigenousSuccess  #IndigenousProfessionals  #Deadly  #IndigenousEngineers

The School of Civil and Environmental Engineering responds” ‘Thank you Rachel McVittie’.

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