Katherine Kitch wasn’t given “the chat” about being indigenous until she was 12 years of age.
Her biggest hurdle at primary school was not her Aboriginality but the suffocating fear she wasn’t smart enough.
Her mum, Tina Hodges, suspected her bright, keen-to-learn daughter had the same disorder she had – dyslexia – and sought help; no easy task in the rural town of Wellington, in inland NSW.
“I had to do a lot of work outside school to catch up,” Katherine (Kat) recalls.
“I had to re-learn everything I was taught every day because it didn’t sink in – I thought for a long time I must be an idiot.”
Kat found her feet when she transferred to the local high school, which offered excellent programs and teachers who believed in her.
Sure, Kat says, she suffered occasional comments about being Aboriginal, but her “prominent problem” was the dyslexia.
“I wanted to be like everyone else,” she says.
“I had lost the will to learn but my mum, my maths, art and science teachers told me I was smart, that I can do this and I just needed to work harder.”
One of the turning points for Kat was being selected among only 20 young people across the country for an Aboriginal summer school for gifted science students.
When her parents’ marriage broke down during Kat’s HSC, she was determined not to let this “traumatic and difficult” period define her future.
“For me what got me through was the hope things would get better,” she says.
That and the foot in the door offered by Charles Sturt University where Kat,19, is studying environmental science and management at its Albury-Wodonga campus.
It would be trite to say Kat, who wants to be a ranger, is one of the lucky ones.
But it would take only a cursory glance through the pages of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s 2017 Closing the Gap report to realise she is defying what is still a grim outlook for indigenous people:
You read, for example, that indigenous 15-year-olds are on average two-and-a-third years behind non-indigenous 15-year-olds in reading and mathematical literacy.
That in 2014-15 the indigenous employment rate actually fell to 48.5 per cent, down from 53.8 per cent in 2008.
Couple this with unemployment rates for indigenous people between the ages of 15 and 64 years that are 3.6 times the non-indigenous unemployment rate.
The report describes the “close association between low levels of education and incarceration for indigenous Australians”.
In almost every key area, from childhood mortality to education and employment, the report shows Australia has failed to “close the gap” on indigenous disadvantage.
In almost every area we have not come far enough.
Tucked away in the report’s pages are glimmers of hope: data, for example, that tells us there is no employment gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians with a university degree.
In fact “indigenous university graduates find work more quickly than their non-indigenous counterparts and have, on average, higher commencing salaries”, it states.
That’s music to the ears of Nathan Peckham, manager of CSU’s indigenous student centres, whose job is to help maximise outcomes for students like Kat and Albury’s Ebony Moran.
“A university degree – and education as a whole – is so important in terms of the options it opens up for employment,” Mr Peckham says.
From alternative entry programs to extensive on-campus support for indigenous students across its multiple campuses, CSU aims to make the transition to university life a successful one – for everyone.
Ebony, 19, is in her first year of speech pathology at the Albury-Wodonga campus after completing a year-long Diploma of General Studies pathways course.
She says the diploma, which prepares you for the rigours of tertiary life and secures entry to most CSU courses, was a life saver.
“When I started my degree this year I didn’t feel as though I had been chucked in at the deep end,” Ebony says.
“I feel really well supported at CSU and I know I’m in good hands.
“I’ve just finished the first 14 weeks and I’m already excited about graduating and finding a job in health where I can help people in my culture.”
Kat’s path to CSU came via its Indigenous Access Program (IAP), a three-day course that assesses literacy and numeracy skills, suitability for university and offers career advice and inspiration.
Mr Peckham says in the past two years the program has opened the door to university for 80 indigenous participants, from school leavers to mature-age students.
Many are drawn to health and education courses with a large number pursuing a career in paramedics.
One of the benefits of the IAP workshop is having current indigenous students share their personal stories, Mr Peckham says.
“It’s a very powerful motivation to hear their real-life journeys,” he explains.
“Many of our graduates go out into the community and make a real difference.”
Mr Peckham believes it’s this type of hope-building that will help change the future for indigenous people.
“The biggest thing is building aspiration at a young age,” he says.
“When you can see and hear what options are achievable and available you are halfway there.”
For Kat and Ebony, happily ensconced in university life, their dreams for the future are well on the way to becoming reality.
They are closing the gap on their own destinies.