About five years ago, a man approached Caroline Hughes out of the blue and said sorry. “I need to apologise to you,” he said, “because as an adult now, I realise what I did to you as a child was wrong.”
As a child, that man was among many bullies who had made the now Ngunnawal elder’s life hell from about the age of six.
The only time she felt safe was when she was at home with her community.
“I forgave him,” she said. “But I have to say there was a bit of me thinking why was he doing it now. But then I recognised it was as important for him to do it as it was for me to hear it.
“I also realise now that I had to go through the hell that was being constantly bullied back then so that I could help people today.
“I just don’t want anyone to go through what I went through. In one way I’m glad I lived back then, even though I was bullied so badly. I just can’t imagine what it would be like these days being bullied through social media.
“In some ways, I look at it as if you’re going through fire to get to the other side. I guess that’s because of what my mother went through [as a member of the Stolen Generation]. She’s a potter now, so that’s what the firing is all about when she makes a pot.”
After she left school at age 17, Caroline took a job stacking timber at a Tumut mill. She stayed for a couple of years, enduring the hard work because there was no alternative.
“But somehow I knew there was more to life than just stacking timber,” she said.
Her mother had similar ideas.
“Mum always pushed education on to us,” she said.
“I tried out for TAFE but didn’t get in. Then I got this call when I was at the mill, encouraging me to try for a second group at TAFE [in secretarial skills] – and I was successful.
“I found out later that they just wanted an extra bottom on the seat and that they didn’t expect me to last, but within the first couple of days there I knew it was right for me. I ended up topping my group.
“But I went to TAFE for the wrong reasons; I know that now. I went so I could get ABSTUDY (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Study Scheme) … and to party, and I did do that, but it also showed me how to take control of my life.
“I had the best teachers. I learned how important it is to believe in yourself and that if you do that, you can help others do the same thing.
“Through this, you can have the power to make changes in your life … make it better.”
During her working life, Caroline has earned many accolades, including as Canberra nominee for Australian of the Year. But few mean as much as the most recent – an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Canberra (UC).
She has been connected to UC for more than two decades, particularly when she worked as the CIT’s Yurauna Centre director.
In January this year, she left that post to take on a role in the Executive Division of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) where she is in her dream job, working with the AIATSIS cultural collection.
“When I was a child, to escape from the bullies I’d go into the library,” Caroline explains.
“The librarian told me I couldn’t go in there unless I read a book. I hated reading back then but I ended up picking up a book, Narnia, and that changed my life. The library and the books became my safe place.”
Caroline received the Honorary Doctorate for her contribution to reconciliation and her tireless efforts to ensure the survival of Indigenous languages.
“It was quite surreal to receive the honour,” she said.
“My mother was in the audience, which made it so special. She wasn’t able to get an education; she and her sister were taken when they were nine or 10. She was forced to clean floors. So to have her there on that day was wonderful.”