The last time we caught up with Gauai Wallace at the beginning of 2021, he had recently graduated from Brisbane Boys’ College and was about to embark on a university degree in Business and Justice at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Brisbane on an academic scholarship from Cape York Leaders Program (CYLP).
Almost two years later, Gauai still displays the same fierce determination to succeed, with a laser-sharp focus on his goals and a commitment to stay connected to his roots. As Gauai himself says upon reflection on the challenges of living far away from family, “I knew culture wasn’t going to run away from me, I was always going to have it.
My mum is Guugu Yalanji and Guugu Yimithirr from Wujal Wujal and my dad is Guugu Yimithirr from Hopevale – so I have deep cultural connections from both sides. It keeps me grounded
Any university degree can be challenging, but Gauai recently switched gears and took it up a level by transferring to Business and Civil Engineering. In roughly three years’ time, the young leader will graduate with a Bachelor of Business/Bachelor of Engineering. While he says he will always have a deep and abiding passion for social justice issues, he recently leaned into a strong instinct to delve into the world of engineering.
“I have loved all of my university experiences so far. There has been nothing bad about it. I became really interested in engineering after a few of my friends started studying it, and that interest just grew. I was home these past holidays and I studied up on it and watched a few videos. Mum walked past and asked about it. I started explaining about engineering and that’s when I knew I was actually keen to lean into this study.
“Doing a double degree is easier than I expected it would be. Someone recently told me that the hard part comes in third year, but I’m fully prepared to put in the work. I’m ready for it and I’ve got the support to see me through. I’m in my second year and loving it.”
Gauai is disarmingly self-assured and confident in the way he moves between two worlds so seamlessly. Mention Gauai’s name to any CYLP alumni and the overwhelming response you will get is one of deep respect and certainty that this is a young man who is going places.
“I’m used to being an individual and being away from home. I grew up in such a culturally rich family and community. Mum is an alumna of CYLP’s adult program and she was one of the first students to go through. She really wanted me to join the program and go off to boarding school to get a better education. She saw how valuable it was and wanted that experience for me. I was in grade seven when I first went away.”
Despite Gauai’s strong sense of self and confidence in his abilities, there were many times in the early days when he doubted if he would make it through.
“It was really scary when I first went away to boarding school. I called mum every Monday before I started school and begged her to let me come home. It was a whole different world, a new environment to be in. Different people, different customs and different behaviours. The school had strict schedules I had to adapt to, and that was difficult to get used to. But I quickly learnt how it all works and operates, and before you know it, it’s just a part of your life.”
Gauai says dealing with Sorry Business has been the most difficult and ongoing challenge he continues to face, living far away from family and community.
“Coming from a close family and community, having family members pass away when I’m down at school is always really difficult. Mum calls me up to let me know, and I speak to her almost every day anyway. Since I’ve been away from grade seven there’s been a lot of deaths, especially having family members from two different communities and considering the state of Aboriginal health, communities having less access to health services, I have seen the impact that has had.”
I knew culture wasn’t going to run away from me,
I was always going to have it
Despite the myriad of challenges before him, Gauai has managed an impressively smooth transition from the CYLP Academic Leaders Secondary to Tertiary phase. In no small part, he concedes, to his family’s unwavering belief in him and instilling a sense of independence from a young age.
“I’m close with my family and they’ve always been there if I need them, and I know they always will be. I’ve been raised to be an individual person, that was instilled in me from a young age. I’ve always been encouraged to have my say on things and my parents will listen. They trust me to do the right thing and trust the choices I’ve made. I have a strong belief in myself and know that I’ll do whatever I can do to be where I want to be.”
In fact, Gauai identifies his family members as his number one role models.
Some of my biggest inspirations come from my family. My mum and dad, grandmothers and grandfathers. Noel Pearson is my grandfather. I am surrounded by all of these great leaders.
The idea of being a role model himself is something that sits easily with Gauai and he is keen to help guide the next generation of CYLP Leaders.
“CYLP have been there from the start, and the program definitely knows I’m an individual person, but I also know they are there for me if I ever need them.
“I’m happy to be there for other young people coming up who might need guidance and support. For me there is no pressure to be a mentor. I’ve had a lot of people mentor me and I appreciate them, so when I have the chance to give back I definitely will.”
While Gauai is only at the very start of his journey, he already understands that the key to long-term success in his life and career is creating a solid plan and working towards it. After spending his most recent uni break working for GHD – a global engineering, environmental, design and construction business – he’s had a glimpse into the world of civil engineering and can’t wait for his next project.
“I worked with GHD on the holidays through the Career Trackers program and I really get civil engineering now. I get to work on projects and see what needs to be done, the regulations, heritage sites and it’s been an amazing experience.
“I want to secure a good job after I graduate and connecting with GHD has shown me that I need to have a good strategy in place, so I’ve created a two-year plan for myself. It’s just a structure to follow to help me stay on track. I really want to work on my career before I have kids and a wife and have fun while I can. With my job, I want to travel and work overseas.”
For CYLP leaders like Gauai, Cape York is the gateway to a world of opportunities.