Keen photographer Jessica Smith's focus on improving the lives of a group of Queensland students while promoting cultural awareness has put her in the running for a national award.
The 25-year-old Indigenous education teacher at Brisbane's Lourdes Hill College is a finalist in the National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee's (NAIDOC) Youth of the Year award and flies out to Melbourne this month for the ceremony.
"I didn't even know I was nominated until I got told I was a finalist. [When they rang], because my role here is a lot to with researching events and informing the girls, I thought they were talking about an event I had inquired about for the students," she explains.
Smith works with 24 girls from Year 8 to 12 at the college and has organised a range of cultural events for the whole school community while working to embed Indigenous perspectives in the curriculum.
"After I graduated in 2008 I took a job as an arts teacher at primary school. I did teaching because when I was at high school I fell pregnant when I was in grade 12. The school was the one thing that kind of kept me going and so I decided after that I wanted to become a teacher so I could help somebody else," Smith says.
"As an arts teacher I did enjoy it ... but it didn't really feel like I was making a huge difference. I was seeing 300 kids a week for maybe one period a day, whereas here I get to focus on 24 girls for an entire year.
"I get to work with other teachers looking at Indigenous perspectives and organise whole school activities where the girls can be part of recognised Indigenous days like reconciliation week...I try to make sure all [the students] are involved."
Smith is an Aboriginal woman and says working to change cultural stereotypes is a challenging aspect of the role. "You can't change everything but you can change something – I just try and focus on making life better for the girls that I [work with] and hopefully that will play some part in closing the gap or changing stereotypes..."
Outside the classroom Smith is working towards her Doctor of Visual Arts in Aboriginal Photography qualification. "I did modelling when I was younger so that's when I started getting interested in photography," she says, but supporting the students at Lourdes is her passion. "I'm committed to the girls that I've started the journey with, I want to see them all graduate and support them even after school through the process of applying and getting to wherever they want to be, whether that's a job, uni, TAFE or whatever."