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Melissa Patterson

inducted 2019 Science

If there is one way to capture the inspiring work of teacher Melissa Patterson, it is to watch Yolngu singer, Yirrmal, hold an audience in the palm of his hand. Yirrmal Marika, a charismatic musician now in his 20s, was among the first group of teenage indigenous men from Arnhem Land to enrol in the Märrma’ Rom - Two Worlds Foundation started by Melissa and her partner, Cam, in 2011.

Märrma’ Rom, a Yolngu word that translates to two worlds, two cultures, two belief systems, involves an educational exchange between traditional indigenous culture in Arnhem Land, and non-indigenous culture many thousands of miles away in Geelong. Now in its eighth year, the foundation grew from Melissa’s own experiences working in impoverished areas, both in Australia and overseas.
Melissa’s first exposure to such a world came during her travels to South East Asia, spending time with young children in orphanages. Then, a few years later, as a teacher, when she had the opportunity to take six months leave from her job at Trinity College in Colac to spend time in Africa with the Christian Brothers and Edmund Rice Foundation, teaching in schools in the slums of Tanzania. Melissa ended up working with Emmanuel alumni Br Frank O’Shea in a Tanzanian school, the Sinon Secondary School, teaching English to a class of 50 students.

Melissa was impressed by the eagerness of the children to learn. She recalls how some children wouldn’t take their backpacks off in the classroom because it, plus their one book and one pen, were their only possessions. Learning English and gaining a good education was the only source of survival.

Returning to mainstream Australia and its obsession with materialism was hard. Not surprisingly, Melissa struggled to settle back into Trinity College. Her principal, Damien McKew, didn’t want her to leave, but encouraged her to pursue another project, which saw Melissa take a year’s leave to work in the remote Aboriginal community of Wadeye, in the NT. Wadeye was tough going and plagued with the problems of a former Mission where many separate cultures were forced together.

For Melissa, however, Wadeye proved a turning point. She met her partner, Cam, who had taught in Arnhem Land for many years and had an extensive understanding of the Yolngu culture and language. Melissa and Cam had many memorable times working together in Wadeye, including winning an exchange trip to Italy for a class of 16 indigenous kids, most of whom had never been on a plane before.

The pair later moved to Arnhem Land to teach in Yirrkala where, again, the teaching was challenging but intensely rewarding. Melissa fully embraced the Yolngu culture and was adopted by two local sisters who shared their stories and sacred places. This, Melissa says, was where the seeds of the Marrma’ Rom Two Worlds Foundation began.

A year before leaving Arnhem Land, Melissa and Cam began to put the foundation in place. As they were bound for Geelong, they selected a partner school there, St Joseph’s College, headed by former Emmanuel College deputy principal Paul Tobias who embraced the idea. After relocating to Geelong, the pair converted their garage into an independent living space for the first four teenagers to arrive from Arnhem Land for a 12-month residency. Among them was Yirrmal.

Since then, the foundation has helped more than 20 young Yolngu men to develop leadership and life skills for their own development and their home community. In 2018, the foundation fulfilled its goal to also cater for girls supporting four young Yolngu women who are working hard to achieve their dreams, and already proving to be future leaders for their communities. Melissa and Cam also now have three young children, all of whom have grown up with an extended family of brothers and sisters from North East Arnhem Land.

For someone who admits she was unsure about teaching as a career, Melissa has become one of the best and her influence stretches from one end of our nation to the other.

Melissa Patterson

2019 Inspiring Alumni

Class of 1995