Community-driven Indigenous leader honoured with Student of the Year Awards
A passionate advocate for Indigenous women and children and proud Gooreng Gooreng woman of Bundaberg is the esteemed recipient of two prestigious Queensland Training awards. Dana Whiston, STEPS Caloundra graduate of the CERT III in Individual Support (Ageing and Disability) program took home Vocational Student of the Year and Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Student of the Year awards at the 2023 QTA North Coast regional finals.
The single mother of 4, now 7 in a blended family chose to pursue a career in aged and disability care following the loss of her mother. Watching her mother advocate for a culturally safe space for Indigenous patients was a real turning point for Dana.
“What my mother gave me on this sad but incredible journey was insight into how important cultural knowledge and practices are when providing care and support for our First Nations patients and their families in such sensitive and significant time in their lives.”
Dana says she decided to become certified in individual support work after being her mother’s carer because nursing work seemed familiar to her, and she felt “a yearning to be this kind of support for my mob.” She chose to study through STEPS Education and Training because the course structure was more student-focused and flexible, more support was available to students, and the learning journey was more tailored to her needs and family commitments.
“My STEPS trainer was kind and listened to my needs. I explained my family commitments, my volunteer commitments, my cultural commitments. She said we could make it work. And we did. When I was unable to commit to some of the training days, she organized alternatives. There were financial barriers, she linked me with the student support officer. I needed to be with my children in the school holidays, she arranged for other work arrangements. She was with me, every step of the way, encouraging me and helping me.”
“My culture was also celebrated, explored and considered with regards to my cultural duties in my family and community.”
Dana believes it is important that there are culturally appropriate pathways for First Nations people to access higher education.
For younger people still in high school, a vocational training pathway through a centre like STEPS can also provide “so much to choose from, on the job training, smaller classes, flexible, hands-on, it can shortcut you to university if that’s what you want, head start your career while still in school, smaller campuses than university.”
As a highly dedicated and involved volunteer in many First Nations communities throughout Queensland, Dana says her leadership roles in the community underpin all of who she is and what her purpose is.
Her involvement over the years includes contributing to research projects at the Centre for Indigenous Education and Research that her mother, Australian Catholic University’s late Professor Nereda White, established, sharing her cultural knowledge with advisory committees for land and sea management that she is a part of, acting as a medical referrer for North Coast Aboriginal Corporation for Community Health.
“First Nations women play a pivotal role in Aboriginal culture, and we have always played an essential role in the leadership of our communities. Often it is the voices of Aboriginal women that have been forced into silence during the oppression of Aboriginal people. Nowhere is it more obvious than during this critical time when Aboriginal women know and understand the dynamics of what is exactly happening in our families and communities.”
Dana’s leadership and community involvement paid off upon graduation from Cert III in Individual Support through STEPS. Her skills combined with her prolific history in community development earned her a paid role with the Caloundra Community Centre as the First Nations Community Development Worker. Dana now focuses on planning, designing, and leading culturally appropriate events, community-led workshops, and discussions for Indigenous people in the community around shared concerns and needs. It is a role that is “helping to improve the quality of life, health and well-being of my people,” says Dana.
The Queensland Training Awards shine a spotlight on excellence and innovation in vocational education, and it is easy to see how Dana won Vocational Student of the Year and Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Student of the Year. She has seamlessly integrated her learned skills with the knowledge and experience she has garnered over the years and applied them in the area she is most passionate about.
“My family, friends and community have been very supportive and celebrated alongside me. I have made my father the proudest. The greatest gift I can give to my father is to carry on in my mother’s footsteps, be the voice that she was for our mob and continue to hold a leadership role in my community as a strong First Nations Woman. I truly believe I can make a difference in many areas for my people.
“Thank you for the opportunity to share my story.”
Dana will represent North Coast at the state final on 9 September 2023 in Brisbane.