By Daniel Jauk

Valerie Ah Chee was the only Aboriginal woman in her cohort. Now, she has returned to Curtin to foster a sense of belonging for other Aboriginal women by designing the artwork for the University’s Moorditj Yorga (Strong Woman) Scholarship.

Valerie Ah Chee hadn’t always considered going to university. But in 2011, just two years after the birth of her youngest son, Raf, who was born prematurely, she took the plunge to study midwifery.

The time felt right for the then-41-year-old as her other children – Jordan, Brendon, Jakob, Callum and Truan – were getting older and didn’t require as much of her support.

“I thought it was time to do something for me. I remember the way the midwives cared for Raf and I wanted to become a midwife to help young Aboriginal mums.”

Studying at university was difficult at first. But over time, Ah Chee’s confidence and belief in herself grew.

“I didn’t have a science or maths brain at all. Being also quite introverted, it was difficult to ask pregnant women to let me support them.

“By the end [of the course], I was really enjoying providing continuity of care. I got 20 women to follow through on their antenatal and postnatal appointments and I was on-call for their births.

“If I can graduate from university, I truly believe anyone can do it.”

Valerie Ah Chee with husband Brendon Snr. posing after graduation.

Valerie Ah Chee with husband Brendon Snr. on her graduation night (image: supplied)

Drawing on intergenerational strength

Ah Chee, who is also an accomplished artist, was this year commissioned by Curtin University to paint the artwork for the Moorditj Yorga Scholarship Program.

The scholarship awards an annual stipend of $10,000 for a maximum of five years to a mature-age Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander woman aged 25 years or older. It includes structured support from a dedicated coordinator to make the student feel more connected to the Centre for Aboriginal Studies and to the faculty delivering their course.

Ah Chee’s acrylic on canvas painting, titled Yorgas Barloonginy (Women Rising), draws on the collective strength of the Nyungar women in her own life.

“My biggest inspiration and role model is my mum, Dr Rosemary van den Berg, who was the first Nyungar woman to graduate with a PhD from Curtin. Mum’s strength, resilience and perseverance inspired me to start my own degree – and finish it,” Ah Chee says.

“The painting is about this intergenerational support. You see this knowledge going around in circles and back and forwards, which shows that our journey of learning is never ending.”

Alumni and Community Relations Manager Jysae Hooper says Ah Chee is the type of student Curtin would have supported with the scholarship had it been available when she enrolled.

“We are incredibly honoured that Valerie agreed to paint this artwork.

“She is absolutely committed to helping and empowering other women through her work and her art.”

The significance of the moorditj term

Moorditj is a common term that means “strong”, “good”, “solid” or “healthy” in the Nyungar language.

Ah Chee often uses the term to describe members of her family.

“I call lots of strong Aboriginal women that all the time! I call my mum that, I call my sisters that, I call my nieces that.

“I’ve also called my sons that. Jordan’s got a physics degree, Brendon and Callum are playing AFL, Jakob and Truan are studying at uni, and Raf’s now studying in high school – I’m really proud of all my family for their resilience.”

Members of Ah Chee’s family have also called her a moorditj woman.

“Mum raised us to be strong and proud Aboriginal people, was always supportive of any path that we chose to take in life, and showed us what dedication and hard work can achieve,” says Ah Chee’s oldest son, Jordan.

“She gave us anything and everything we needed to have successful and happy lives. Mum still is a big part of who I am, and I am very proud to call her my mother. I know she will be someone my own daughters will look up to as a strong Aboriginal woman.”

The Ah Chee family in their Kelmscott home.

Valerie Ah Chee (far left) with her family in their Kelmscott home several years ago (image: supplied).

Ah Chee’s journey since graduating

After graduating, Ah Chee worked in hospital care in Perth and Adelaide, and through a Rhodanthe Lipsett scholarship, had the opportunity to attend the 2017 International Confederation of Midwives Congress in Canada.

She is now a Senior Project Officer at Ngangk Yira (Research Centre for Aboriginal Health and Social Equity at Murdoch University) for Baby Coming You Ready?, an online assessment that evaluates and enhances the wellbeing of pregnant Aboriginal women.

Ah Chee’s dream is to establish culturally appropriate Aboriginal birthing centres in Western Australia, to improve their pregnancy and birth experiences.

“It’s about meeting a person’s needs, whether it’s needing their families with them, doing ceremonies around their health or choosing between a male or female doctor or nurse.”

“Hopefully it’s something the community can get behind.”

Support the Moorditj Yorga scholarship

If you’d like to make a donation to the Moorditj Yorga Scholarship Program, please get in touch.