23 October 2015
Two sage pieces of advice from mentors have set Bilyana Noel Blomeley on the right path from his early days as the first Torres Strait Islander male to attend Harvard University, to current role shaping the learning environment of Indigenous high school students in NSW.
“Set a blistering pace early” and “avoid the ivory tower” are messages Bilyana embraces as he moves through a career in academia, alternating with stints in the classroom and assisting other teachers improve the educational outcomes of their Indigenous students.
Bilyana, a senior education officer and consultant in the Department of Education in NSW, works with teachers in the classroom to help them teach in a more Indigenous-friendly way.
“There is a particular way of delivering information that helps Indigenous students feel at home and feel engaged. It involves more storytelling, more community involvement and de-compartmentalising the classroom environment,” Bilyana said.
“To me the measure of success will be a long term measure with a more global, world view – are they in rich and rewarding roles, lives and careers five or 10- years down the track?”
Bilyana’s own rich and rewarding path was enhanced when he studied teaching curriculum and learning environments at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard thanks to an RG Menzies Scholarship to Harvard in 1993.
At the time he studied side-by-side with a mainland Aboriginal Australian man, Paul Hughes and together they were the first Indigenous men to study at Harvard.
It was just before his Harvard studies that Bilyana was given the advice “set a blistering pace early”.
“This really came at the right time for me because when you do that you find things are quite manageable – the pace takes on a life of its own and it carries you.
“I was the President of the student body and I tapped into and absorbed the inspiration of so many highly focused, motivated, driven individuals. Even when I was struggling, their energy helped me refuel and refocus.”
Bilyana started a PhD at Humboldt University in Berlin, based on a cross-cultural comparison between the Sami people of Northern Europe (Scandinavia) and Australia’s Indigenous people. “I looked at the visual indicators to communicate Indigeneity. Do the visual representations of being Indigenous (across the world) help people to be recognised and accepted?”
Bilyana has also held the position of Head of the Gnibi College of Indigenous Australian Peoples at Southern Cross University in Lismore, but in between academic stints, he likes to get back to the coalface and teach in the classroom. He’s recently been teaching maths in Narrabri.
“One of my mentors used to say ‘Avoid the ivory tower’; make sure you go back into the trenches, back to the coalface and get contemporary information about the people you are writing about.
“This is an ongoing circular conversation for me.
“Right now I have a hunger for a more personalised experience of culture and I’d like to take my experience back to the Torres Strait; to live, eat and breathe Thursday Island for a while. My spirit is hungry for cultural context.”
It might be a more relaxed lifestyle but you get the impression Bilyana will continue at a cracking pace.