Year 12 student, Issac Graham, remembers sticking with other students from Eaglehawk Secondary College when he first came to BSSC.

When only one of them ended up sharing a class with him, Issac had to step out of his comfort zone, reach out and make new connections.

“I never expected to make so many friends at BSSC,” he says. “Some have become really good mates.”

He quickly realised Year 11 was going to be much harder than Year 10, but says quite matter-of-factly, “I just had to adapt”.

This meant better time management and focusing completely on school work.

Unfortunately, Covid lockdowns continued throughout Issac’s first year at the college. He describes the pandemic as having a “massive impact” on his school work.

“I just couldn’t keep up the motivation during online learning,” he says. I’m definitely one of those people who prefers to talk to a person face-to-face.”

His family also had to be extremely careful to avoid catching Covid due to pre-existing health issues.

Now back in the classroom, Issac is appreciating his teachers’ support and the direction given in class.

“It’s been easy to stay focused on what’s in front of me and engage with my subjects now I’m back at the college,” he says.

His hot study tip? Concentrate!

“Don’t just sit there pretending you’re doing the work,” he says. “If you don’t understand, ask.”

Issac describes BSSC as “engaging” and “respectful” and vividly recalls his first meeting with Sue Pickles, BSSC’s Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Program Coordinator.

“I felt an immediate strong connection with Sue,” he says. “She’s given me great guidance and advice throughout my time here.”

Issac, a proud Gunaikurnai/Wamba Wamba Aboriginal man, has been inspired by the lack of racism at BSSC.

“We were discussing racism in a class and everyone participated and took it so seriously,” he recalls. “It was great to experience this.”

Issac is deeply impressed by Adam Goodes, former AFL star and Australian of the Year, who endured appalling racial abuse and walked away from the game in 2015.

But there is another wise and wonderful Aboriginal (Gunditjmara and Bundjalung) man who has played a big role in Issac’s life; his uncle, the much loved songwriter, singer and activist Archie Roach, who passed away in July.

“I have wonderful memories of sitting around a campfire with Uncle Archie,” Issac says. “He would pull out his guitar and start singing. We’d all join in and then he’d tell us stories.

“If I could talk to anyone in the world, I would so love to still be able to talk with him.”

Issac feels lucky to have met so many traditional owners and elders.

“I take their stories and my history really seriously,” he says. “I’m proud to have the courage to challenge people when I see them being disrespectful.”

If Issac could go back and give his twelve year-old self some advice, he would tell him to stick to a good path and take every opportunity that comes his way.

One opportunity he’s very glad he grabbed was to be part of YO Bendigo’s 2022 Koorie Youth Flick Fest.

Issac both participated in, and helped film, the short documentary about young Aboriginal men making didgeridoos and learning to play them under the guidance of Wakka Wakka elder Uncle Paul Chapman during the Covid lockdowns.

“Uncle Paul has been a great mentor to so many of us in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander program,” he says.

Issac also put his hand up for the Head Start program and is currently undertaking a School Based Apprenticeship with the Department of Land, Water and Planning (DELWP).

“I started out working one day each week at North Central Catchment Management Authority (CMA) and this year I‘m also working with DELWP, Issac says. “The experiences have been quite varied.

“I recently spent a day with a group of students, led by Uncle Rick Nelson, exploring important Aboriginal sites across Dja Dja Wurrung country.”

These included the ‘Big Tree’ in Guildford—an ancient red gum of ongoing significance to traditional owners, graves of significance in Yapeen, and the Eureka rock wells—Aboriginal water storage wells near Maryborough.

In contrast, Issac has also been out with CMA staff doing water monitoring and also spent a day working with Parks Victoria rangers, clearing away rubbish illegally dumped in bushland.

The program also has its creative side. Issac and other participants are designing a t-shirt that is about to go off to the printers.

While he is clearly enjoying and benefitting from these opportunities, Issac is most grateful for his mum who has supported him and pushed him to do things.

“She’s really built my belief that I can achieve anything,” he says.

Issac has firm plans for the future.

“In five years I hope I’ll be a fully-qualified boilermaker,” he says. “In ten years I hope I’m much more involved in preserving Aboriginal history and telling our stories.”

Issac is planning a gap year for 2023—a chance to work, save some money and buy a car.

“I also used to play basketball and I wouldn’t mind getting back into that.”