Gauai Wallace Jnr is learning what it means to become a good leader and hopes to use these skills to better serve the nation’s Indigenous communities.

 

Leaving the security of the nest is a difficult process, for both youth and parents. The transition from a nurturing household and a beloved lifestyle to the uncertainties of a city faraway needs to be negotiated with a sense of resilience and an eagerness to learn. One young man from Cooktown, Gauai Wallace Jnr, is on this journey and is accomplishing much along the way, while still fostering a strong connection with home.

Through an academic scholarship to Cape York Leaders Program (CYLP), Gauai has just completed his studies at Brisbane Boys’ College, a rare opportunity for young residents of Cape York. With a program grounded in fostering leadership skills, CYLP has been highly successful in recognising talented Indigenous youth and providing a pathway to higher education and employment. In 2019, the program achieved a retention rate of 92 per cent of enrolled students with nine students graduating Year 12.

Although Gauai was initially hesitant about joining the program, due to the prospect of leaving home for a full-time boarding arrangement in Brisbane, his parents – both former CLYP participants were there to reassure him. They talked about the possibilities awaiting him and what his future could look like. They also assured him he would be able to return to his home in the school holidays and engage in his favoured pastimes, hunting and fishing. The consistent mentoring from local CYLP Student Support Officers also proved critical to his happiness and progression.

“Sending Gauai away to boarding school was difficult and we miss him a lot,” said Gauai’s mother, Zeila. “But this more beneficial to him in the long run.”

Since his engagement with the program, Zeila has been taken aback by her son’s newfound sense of self-confidence, and regards him as an impressively mature young man. But most importantly, she is inspired by his retention of culture and continued acknowledgement of his Indigenous heritage.

“I worried if a big city was going to deter him from his culture, but when he completed and sent home a traditional Indigenous art piece, I was so proud of the person he has become,” Zeila said.

Gauai has just been accepted to Queensland University of Technology to study a Bachelor of Business and Bachelor of Justice double degree in 2021. He hopes to use this degree, combined with his passion for leadership, to serve Australia’s Indigenous communities. He has been particularly alarmed by the disproportionate rates of Indigenous youth and adult incarceration, and is determined to be part of the solution.

“Even though we make up 3.3 per cent of the Australian population, Indigenous Australians make up a much higher percentage of the total prison population, which is pretty sad,” Gauai said.

Gauai particularly hopes to work with incarcerated Indigenous youth and guide them toward stable options for their future, reducing their reoffending rate. He credits much of this ambition, and his opportunities for study, to the values learned through participation in CYLP.

“I’ve learnt that a good leader is someone who always tries to do the right thing,” Gauai said. “Without CYLP I’m honestly not sure where I would be right now.”

Importantly, the CYLP promotes empowerment above all else, and instills a high degree of self-determination within its students – a sentiment Gauai encapsulated so perfectly.

“They’ve helped me open my eyes and understand the world a bit more. But sometimes I think I’ve gotten myself to where I want to be,” he said.