It’s not often you meet someone completing their third TAFE course in under five years, but Tanya McDonald’s foray into tertiary education has changed her life – and now she’s training to change the lives of others.
McDonald first began at South West TAFE in Warrnambool to study a Diploma of Community Services in 2016. “I never thought it would even be possible to go back and study,” she says. “I was nearly 40 and hadn’t studied since high school.”
But as a family violence survivor who had, with the ongoing support of community service counsellors, found the strength to leave her abusive partner, McDonald felt compelled to support other women going through the same experience.
While undertaking the diploma, the opportunity came up to also do a Certificate IV in Family Therapy, so McDonald completed the courses side by side, finishing both in 2019.
“TAFE gave me immense support,” says the mother of four. “There were times when I nearly pulled out, but I had an amazing teacher who would just say to me, ‘No, you’re not quitting’. They even let me bring my littlest kids into class when I needed to, as long as the subject matter was appropriate.
“There aren’t too many Indigenous students, especially in that area, and they were really supportive of that, too. My teacher is a big advocate for getting more Aboriginal people out there in the field.”
McDonald, who studied under a scholarship for Indigenous students, says she also received nothing but support from her fellow students, who all wanted to know more about her Aboriginal heritage and community. “It was great that they were open and curious. I made a lot of good friends, and I broke down any stigma a bit for them as well. It gave them that extra understanding, which will be really great if they’re working with Indigenous children and women.”
‘They’ve done so much for me and I want to share what I’ve gained and give back to the community.’
McDonald found the courses cathartic but deeply emotional, having made the decision to be open about her own experiences. “It was one of those courses where you grow, and rediscover yourself – and I had lost myself due to the family violence,” she says. “I was ready to bring up personal stories, and it felt good.”
Last year, McDonald was named Koorie Student of the Year in the 2019 Victorian Training Awards, an honour she says was both amazing and daunting, but one she has courageously used as a platform to speak out about her experiences.
Of her experiences of TAFE, McDonald can’t speak highly enough, and she wants to encourage others to explore study as a potential pathway to turning their lives around. “Just go for it – you’ve got nothing to lose. TAFE has a really good welfare system; they’re really understanding, they know there’s stuff going on at home.”
In her current Cert IV in Training and Assessment (TAE), McDonald says the teacher even rings her up once a week, to see how she’s going. “And I’m still in contact with the teacher who drove me through the first course. She’s been an inspiration.”
Between courses, McDonald worked at South West Healthcare implementing a Reconciliation Action Plan to ensure a culturally appropriate space. She now hopes to explore and develop culturally sensitive models of family therapy to support the women in her region. “Therapy that uses culture and country,” she suggests.
“You know, sitting in a room with four white walls in a counselling session might not be the best strategy. In my family therapy course, we explored different strategies, some working outside and with nature rather than just sitting in a room with paper and pen.”
McDonald would also love to create and deliver a cultural awareness program for the region, and to become a teacher at the TAFE that has made it all possible.
“It’s why I’m doing the TAE. They’ve done so much for me and I want to share what I’ve gained and give back to the community.”