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Embracing her identity to empower others: Meet Tonia Chalk
Tonia is standing outside, looking at the camera, smiling.

*Readers are cautioned that the names of individuals who have passed away are included in this article*

Tonia Chalk is an Aboriginal Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Southern Queensland (UniSQ). A chance meeting in her early 20s would set Tonia on a mission of self-discovery and ignite a passion that she lives and breathes in her research and teaching today. 

As we take a seat with Tonia in the leafy courtyard, the sun is beginning to dip under the horizon. It’s been over 25 years since Tonia first set foot on these grounds as an undergraduate student; her first steps towards a rewarding career in education. 

Tonia first became interested in education when her high school Drama teacher encouraged her to be bold and raise her voice. After high school, she went on to study a Bachelor of Creative Arts at UniSQ before embarking on a Graduate Diploma of Teaching. However, she needed to take a break from study for family reasons as her younger brother required a great deal of ‘sisterly’ support to get back on track once more. It would be seven years before she would pick up the baton again. 

In 2001, Tonia enrolled in a Bachelor of Education (Drama and English) – Graduate Entry with a reinvigorated sense of purpose. In doing so, she returned to the school where her love for education was first ignited, teaching at Harristown State High School for the next nine years. In 2011, Tonia made the step to tertiary education, joining us at UniSQ as an Associate Lecturer in the School of Education. In 2015 she became a Level B Lecturer as she undertook her PhD research. Today, she juggles her PhD research with fulfilling a number of service roles within the community as well as teaching EDC2200 First Nations Education, a core course for all Education students. It’s the first time Tonia has taught this subject at the tertiary level; it’s a course close to heart, but not without its challenges. 

A closer look at Tonia’s journey reveals her story is far from simple. 

An encounter with the past changes Tonia’s future 

Tonia was 23 when, encouraged by an academic and family friend to research her roots, she learned of her Aboriginality. 

‘My mum was at a reunion and started talking to a Professor of Education about our family tree. From there, we began to uncover birth and death certificates. We discovered eight generations of our family heritage, beginning with an African slave from Sierra Leone. We found that my family heritage is African, Irish, English and Aboriginal.’

At first, Tonia struggled with her new-found identify.

‘Once you name yourself as Aboriginal, it carries a lot of baggage. People make assumptions about your abilities or think you’ve had an easier ride than others.’ 
Returning to UniSQ to begin her Bachelor of Education in 2001, she confided in an Aboriginal lecturer about how she was feeling.

‘My professor just looked at me and said, Tonia, are you Aboriginal? I said, yes. And he said, that’s all you need to know. That was the most life-affirming thing I’ve ever heard. He made me feel that I wasn't faking an identity and that I can be proud of who I am.’

Over the last 18 years, Tonia has been building a puzzle; weaving together stories from fellow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics and colleagues across disciplines to inform her understanding of her heritage.

Tonia’s voyage of self-discovery extends into her PhD studies. She’s researching inquest files of the deaths of Aboriginal women in the early 19th and 20th centuries in Queensland; one of whom is her Great-great-great-great Grandmother, Emily Dunn.

‘Emily represents the beginning of my Aboriginal heritage. She passed away at 30 after giving birth to nine children, of whom seven survived. Emily died of Strychnine poisoning, which was thought to be self-administered. In learning this, there were a lot of tears. Yet, uncovering my heritage filled an important knowledge gap. Growing up, we ache to understand where we come from, who our family are, and where our country is.’

Here and now: Self-assured and leading the way at UniSQ 

As a Lecturer in the School of Education, Tonia is teaching First Nations Education at university for the first time. She works hard to educate non-Indigenous students about their power and privilege.

‘It’s critical that non-Indigenous students understand the impact of their ‘white lens’ and what role this plays in the classroom, curriculum, policy, decision-making, behaviour management and when it comes to specific subjects they encourage each student to study.’

With this huge task before her, Tonia says that UniSQ provides a personalised experience which allows her to focus on students as individuals and bring the best out of them.  

‘I’m able to get to know my students on a one to one level - which isn’t as common at one of the large G8 universities. Here, I have the chance to share my stories as an Aboriginal academic to build trust with students so they feel they can talk to me. In turn, this helps us both expand our knowledge and skills.’ 

Today, Tonia has come full circle; she embraces her identity to help others realise their own.

‘I feel really strong and proud. To be a role model for students, it’s important I’m known as the Aboriginal Lecturer in the School of Education. I’m an Aboriginal person first and a Lecturer second - and my goal is to get as many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers out there to shift the dial. This is my biggest focus now.’

Find out more about current career opportunities and what it’s like to work at UniSQ.

UniSQ Staff
Work at UniSQ