Leading by Example

Prominent Indigenous Australians Professor Michael McDaniel and Dr Anita Heiss reflect on the profound impact of positive role models

Call them mentors, guides, elders or good friends, but those we look up to have a transformative effect on our development, lives and careers.

Award-winning author Dr Anita Heiss and Professor Michael McDaniel, both Western alumni, found mentors to be instrumental in their journey towards becoming leaders and role models within Australia’s Indigenous community.

The pair met more than 20 years ago and have since become close friends - supporting and learning from each other throughout their careers. Dr Heiss, who completed her PhD at Western in 2001, is a bestselling author of Indigenous literature, an accomplished presenter and a sought-out commentator. Professor McDaniel studied a Bachelor of Arts at Western Sydney University in the late 80s, and has held top positions in Indigenous education departments across the sector.

Both recall turning points in their lives with great clarity.

At just age 14, Professor McDaniel left school and spent the next 10 years doing odd jobs, from farm hand to the army. When he saw an ad in the local paper for a bridging course offering entry into Western Sydney University, he decided to give it a shot. By his second year of university, he was offered a position teaching university level Indigenous studies, which then turned into a full-time role when he graduated.

Born into a working-class family, Professor McDaniel was the first member of his family to study at university. “I always had a feeling that I could do more,” he says. “Western Sydney University not only opened my eyes to my own potential, but really set my life on a different trajectory.”

Professor McDaniel went on to serve in roles including Director of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University and Dean of Indigenous Education at Western Sydney University, and is now Pro Vice-Chancellor of Indigenous Leadership and Engagement at UTS.

“I’ve become an academic and all my children went to university. (My education) has had an intergenerational impact.”

According to Professor McDaniel, it has been a similar story for almost all the Indigenous students he has worked with throughout his career. “I have seen lives and family trajectories change. From someone giving me a chance, it has contributed to the education of thousands, and that will continue through the generations. That’s the magic of education.”

Mentors make a difference.

Professor McDaniel values the guidance he received from senior figures throughout his life, and says the identity of an Indigenous Australian involves learning from elders and passing that knowledge onto younger generations. “We have a sense that your life is not just your own. You’re part of your community’s story.”

Professor McDaniel takes his responsibility towards younger generations very seriously.

“If we close the gap on education, we close all the other gaps,” he says. “An educated person can be more financially secure, have more choices and be in a psychologically better place, with more control over their life.”

After completing her undergraduate degree in history, Dr Heiss undertook a PhD in media and communications at Western Sydney University. She credits the PhD for much of her success: “It was the best educational decision I have made. The Doctorate was the springboard to what has followed in my career. The research skills developed through study continue to be used in my everyday career 20 years later.”

In 2003, having made a name for herself through a mix of academia, media and publishing, Dr Heiss, with the help of her life coach Geraldine Star, decided to become a full-time writer.

“It was through having a mentor and life coach that I moved into full-time writing” she says.

While Dr Heiss still relies on the guidance of mentors herself, she is also leading the way for others through her own mentoring of Indigenous students, particularly those with publishing aspirations. “Indigenous people who have had success in various areas of Australian society – education, employment, etc. – are often called upon to be role models and mentors, to work in communities and sectors where there is little support, and often little Indigenous visibility,” she says. “The role of mentor is crucial in building up capacity for the area.”

Get involved.

Some peak bodies have mentorship programs, or are simply a useful platform for meeting potential mentors. “My writing mentors have been people I have met through professional organisations like the Australian Society of Authors,” says Dr Anita Heiss. “Look within your sector for key people who you respect and look up to, and see if the peak bodies in your area have mentorship programs.”

Looking for a mentor?

Western Sydney University also provides a mentoring program for students. Join our online e-mentoring platform for Alumni and start connecting at Grad Life Mentors