“Anything is possible.”
For Charles Sturt University (Charles Sturt) Associate Professor and NSW Indigenous Woman of the Year Dr Faye McMillan, this isn’t merely a platitude. As a graduate of the inaugural Atlantic Fellows program for Social Equity (7 hubs around the globe), which selected only 15 people from across Australia and New Zealand, Faye has been a change-maker for a long time.
Faye’s family originate from Trangie, NSW, where Faye spent a number of her formative years surrounded by family. Faye’s early life was a mix of travel and working – from Emerald and Rockhampton in Queensland through to Melbourne and Sydney.
Working in a range of different positions, Faye spent her young adult years trying out jobs and places.
“I did a number of things - working in hospitality, moving to Melbourne and then to Sydney and working as a receptionist,” Faye said.
“I worked my way up to being client manager of a photocopier company. I could operate a photocopier like you wouldn’t believe.”
However the opportunity to return to Trangie to be closer to family beckoned and Faye found herself working at the local pharmacy. It was this job that would set her on a new path and one which saw her become the first Aboriginal registered pharmacist in Australia.
“I didn’t do science at high school, so I contacted Charles Sturt to find out what kind of science I needed to do – and the person who answered the phone was Mark Burton,” Faye said.
Professor Mark Burton was, at the time, the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Science.
“I got talking to him about who I was and where I came from, and told him I was going to TAFE and he said, well would you be interested in starting pharmacy?”
Even now Faye reflects on the impact of that phone call on her life.
“I didn’t realise who he was at the time! He said to come over and meet him.
“Driving home from Wagga to Canberra, Mark called and said, come to Uni.
“So I got a caravan and moved to Wagga in a week and started in 1997 with the first cohort of pharmacy students.”
Faye found the course both scary and supportive – “a lot of bright young intelligent people that scared the crap out of me” – but soon found asking for help paid off.
“I was put on academic probation in the first six months.
“It was the people that turned it around for me and I’d like to think Charles Sturt hasn’t changed.
“But I also wanted to prove to people that giving people a chance - sometimes they might bugger up - but you still need to give them a chance.
“For a lot of Aboriginal students, it’s being giving a chance and then you have to do something with that chance.”
After graduating, Faye worked in the Northern Territory, became involved with the Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Commission and worked at Wollongong University. Faye then began work at Charles Sturt and is now Director of the Djirruwang Program in the School of Nursing, Midwifery and Indigenous Health.
Over the years, she began to become more involved in indigenous health and mental health.
“It’s important for indigenous health that there is the acknowledgment of history as told by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the impact that has had.
“And not statistically because numbers mean very little sometimes.
“But when you start to put it in perspective of mental health and suicide rates – and you ask, what number isn’t an acceptable number? You think of the people who are important to you and the number should be zero.
“The stigma attached to mental health is still very prevalent. We’re more likely to say we feel sick than to say we’re suffering anxiety or say, I can’t mentally be at work today. We need to change that conversation.”
Faye will be travelling to Oxford later this year as an Atlantic fellow, to meet the other fellows and come up with ways to collaborate on the issues facing the world.
“I’m lucky to be part of the inaugural cohort and now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Institute,” Faye said.
“My project was on mental health and now as a senior fellow it’s about collaborating with others to advance projects around the world.”
While Faye feels anything is possible, there’s one other critical piece to seeing change happen.
“You have to be prepared for the time that someone says yes.
“Pay equity is just one example. It takes one fearless leader to say, you know what? There should be no pay discrepancy.
“What we then do when the leader says yes? I can do that.”