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Erin and the MECCA-M Power grant: Chapter One.

On the eve of setting off on my trip to the Torres Strait as part of my undertaking for the MECCA-M Power grant, I’ve been reflecting on how this project is a fantastic synergy of my personal journey. 

A very strong theme embedded in my life story is the importance of education. This has been brought about not just through my formal education, but also my life experiences. One of the most influential people in my educational journey is my Mum, Di Hughes. Her role has been ever-changing, and the MECCA-M Power grant is even more special for the opportunity it has given me to collaborate with my mum in a very different educational relationship to what I have previously had. 

My family picking up my Grandad who came for a visit (left to right): Brother, Mum, Grandad, Me and Dad

Until my later high school years, some might say I had a very alternative education. Growing up on a fishing boat in the Torres Strait meant that most of the time I didn’t have access to a primary school. Because of this, my siblings and I were homeschooled, with our Mum as our primary teacher. That was usually at least until midday when the fishing crew arrived home and “school” was finished so my Mum could help clean the crayfish. My early schooling years meant never having to wear shoes, swimming most days, and being curious about everything not in a classroom. It required understanding the importance of self-learning, essential when your Mum was busy teaching your younger brothers to read. This time also taught me problem-solving, for when things don’t go as planned, and the practical skills of life, such as driving a boat, learning about the tides, and some good old first aid for the guaranteed yet always unexpected collisions with fishing hooks.

Mum flying down from the Torres Straits for my Masters graduation.

For me, secondary school meant moving away from home to boarding school, where education was a different kettle of fish. Despite the debilitating terror of having to complete an exam for the first time in my life, and having to learn that you are supposed to be able to sit in a chair for most of the day, I eventually came to realise the opportunities and privileges that education could provide, which in turn lead me onto higher education. For my Mum, us kids leaving home for high school enabled her to pursue her teaching degree, and she is now educating the next generation of young people of the Torres Straits. However, for my Mum, this didn’t mean an escape from my educational journey. For me, English – particularly spelling and grammar – was always a challenge, so my Mum’s role morphed into my personalised assignment drafter. Throughout high school and then university my mother read countless reports, articles, oral presentations…. you name it, Mum has probably had to draft it. It also included a few riveting reports on reaction engineering, after which she questioned if I was sure I wanted to be an engineer! Thankfully for my Mum, after many late nights of proof reading countless assignments and many grey hairs because of my inability to even be able to see the mistakes, I did get better. 

Today, I am a senior surface water engineer. Because of my personal journey, I am passionate about education, particularly for groups who don’t have access to the privilege that education can bring, due to their remoteness, culture or society’s stereotypes. As a result, I have been managing EWB Australia volunteers to travel to the Torres Straits annually for the last four years to run engineering and science workshops in some of the remote schools. As part of the MECCA M-Power grant, I now have the opportunity to be able to assess the educational impacts of this long-term delivery approach. To do this, I am lucky enough to be able to re-partner with my Mum to be able to assess educational impacts, and thus once changing our educational relationship.

Now in its third year, the MECCA M-Power Mentoring Program, in partnership with Engineers Without Borders Australia, empowers and engages young Australian women demonstrating vision and leadership in Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths (STEM). The 2019/20 recipient is young engineer Erin Hughes. Her vision to inspire underrepresented groups within STEM fields – such as women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – to pursue STEM studies and careers with be further bolstered through the program.