When BSSC Year 12 student, Emily Gower, was in Year 9 a remarkable ‘missing puzzle piece’ in her life was put into place. Her parents found evidence to confirm what they’d always suspected: that they were Aboriginal and their mob was the Palawa people—the original custodians of Tasmania.

Emily traces her ancestry back to a remarkable woman named Dalrymple (Dolly) Briggs.

As Emily found when she began searching online: ‘Almost all the [Palawa] families surviving today are descended from Dalrymple (Dolly) Briggs and Fanny Cochrane Smith. Children of such women [have] proved to be the key to survival of Palawa culture.’

“Every day I’m proud of helping keep my culture alive to pass on to future generations,” Emily says.

At the time of this momentous discovery, she was attending Eaglehawk Secondary College (ESC) and one of her teachers there made a point of welcoming Emily and her sister into the Aboriginal community at the college.

Since then, Emily has been on a wonderful journey of discovery and education—learning the Dreamtime stories, being taken to special places on Country, and being involved in community events.

“I feel like I’m constantly learning about my culture now,” she says with a smile.

“The cultural support I’ve received here has been really good,” Emily says. “The Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Program has been a great way to connect with other students of Aboriginal heritage and coordinator, Sue Pickles, is particularly supportive.”

She also appreciates the way other BSSC teachers check in to make sure students are travelling okay.

One issue Emily has an opinion about is Advisor Groups. Her preference is that all the Indigenous students are in the one group—as it was when she was in Year 11.

“It allowed me to form closer ties with other Indigenous students much more easily,” she says. “But aside from that, BSSC has such a community-feel—everyone is really welcoming and open-minded.”

Emily arrived at BSSC in the company of other students from her 7 to 10 college, but soon found she was connecting with new students in her classes, enriching her friendship group which has evolved and changed.

So, while you can usually find Emily in the E-Block art space, she also enjoys taking her study breaks in the park with friends.

Beyond the college community it is local Indigenous people who most inspire her; their willingness to stand up for what they believe in and speak out on behalf of their culture.

Further afield, New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Adern, is a bit of a hero for Emily because of the way she was able to bring her country together after the bombing in Christchurch.

New Zealand’s treaty with Maori people also impresses Emily who is passionate about equality and tolerance and would love to visit New Zealand and learn about Maori culture.

As well as being a proud Indigenous woman, Emily is also a proud Indigenous artist.

This ability and passion for art was wonderfully nurtured at ESC by her Year 9 and 10 Art teacher, Rae Boykett. Moving to BSSC was something that Emily was quite excited about, expecting it would help take her art to a whole new level. She has not been disappointed.

All the benefits of Rae’s approach—allowing Emily to interpret and explore topics in her own way—have been strengthened at BSSC and she has used the opportunities to further explore her culture.

“Mum and Dad have always been very supportive of my art,” Emily explains, “and my Art teachers have been more like encouraging friends. Elise, my photography teacher, is particularly passionate about Indigenous rights which has been great.”

Last week at the annual BSSC Year 12 Art Exhibition, Emily won the coveted Bat City Award for a stunning work she created on a coolamon. Emily shared the moment with her many keen supporters including Rae, who came along to the Exhibition.”

The coolamon has also been entered in the prestigious Victorian Top Arts 2020—a great achievement in itself!

The work allowed Emily to combine the skills she has developed across her visual art subjects—she has been studying Art General, Studio Art Photography, Visual Communication Design and English and openly admits that juggling three folios has been “pretty tricky”.

However, Emily is rightfully proud of how far she has come in the last two years. VCE is almost always a challenge and she expected this. But her great capacity for commitment and perseverance has been harshly tested by the death of her father this year.

Emily began Year 12 just months after her Dad was diagnosed with the cancer that took his life in late September.

“Dad was so determined that everyone in the family kept to the plans we had made,” she says. “He knew I had been nominated for Top Arts before he died and was so proud of that.

“We have also always been an open family who talked about everything and I think this was partly why we were able to care for Dad at home with the support of Palliative Carers.”

Emily says the most precious thing her Dad gave her was his example: to never give up and to always be yourself.

She reflects back to when she was in early high school and recalls how hard she tried to change—to fit in with what she thought was the way she was supposed to be.

“It just made me unhappy,” she remembers. “I decided that I was going to be myself. And one thing I like about myself is that I have this capacity for empathy and kindness that helps me to always treat people the way I would like to be treated.”

Such insights about life and study will serve her well as she plans for 2020.

“I hope to study Graphic Design and then Photography at TAFE,” she says.

She loves photo portraiture and shooting events such as the Bendigo Easter Parade and the recent Zinda Festival. Emily’s also photographs the under-18 girls AFL football team her sister plays for, and her work has also appeared in the Eaglehawk Magazine.

Her long-term plan is to become a professional photographer and to travel.

“I would love to deck out a van and travel around photographing events,” she says. “The van would have to be a Combi… I’ve always been obsessed with them and when I was younger my nickname was ‘Combi’.”

Outside of school, Emily loves the Rockabilly scene. The style of her own dress and head scarf reflect this. The rockabilly connection to cars is all part of this scene, and Emily’s choice of car is, of course, a Combi.

Rockabilly is also inextricably linked to 1950s music. Chuck Berry is Emily’s favourite but she enjoys a lot of different music and is a big fan of Indigenous hip hop artist, Baker Boy, who she has seen perform live… twice.

It’s been a huge year for Emily, yet she continues towards her goals with the kind of commitment that will surely see her succeed.