Kayla Baker-Peris is a proud Yolngu, Yawurru and Kidja woman born and raised in Darwin. She is an alumna of the Yalari Indigenous scholarship program, which supported her until graduating from Kambala Girls School in Rose Bay, Sydney, in 2018. Below, she shares her experiences of being one of the first Indigenous students at Kambala and how the scholarship changed her life.
Yalari has been providing Indigenous children from regional and remote communities across Australia full boarding school scholarships for their secondary education since 2005. Based on a belief that education is the key to a brighter future for Indigenous Australians and our nation, Yalari has 249 students nationally on scholarships and an alumni group of more than 480 highly educated and connected young Indigenous leaders.
Yalari was founded by Indigenous educationalist Waverley Stanley AM and his wife Llew Mullins. The Rosemary Bishop Indigenous Education Scholarships are named after Waverley’s Year 7 teacher who helped him secure a scholarship to Toowoomba Grammar School in 1980. Funding was initially provided by the Australian Venture Capital Association, the Department of Education, Employment & Workplace Relations, and later from The Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation.
Yalari has developed and refined the support programs that help students achieve academically, keep them motivated to succeed, connected to their culture and each other and, most importantly, inspire them to ‘pay it forward’ by helping others to follow in their footsteps.
- Thanks for answering our questions, Kayla. How did you hear about the scholarships and why did you want one?
I was inspired by my older cousin Rickelle, who told me about the exciting trips she had been on during her scholarship with Yalari at her school, Scotch College in Adelaide. I had been talking about going to boarding school for two years before I could apply, so my family were fully prepared to take the journey with me, knowing that it was everything I wanted. I remember my mum and dad said to Waverley at the home interviews: “Darwin is too small for Kayla, we just know that wherever she goes, she will thrive and grow.” I’m so grateful that I come from such a culturally strong and close family, which helped me get through those years at boarding school.
- What sort of opportunities has the scholarship opened up?
The opportunity to get an education like the one I received at Kambala was life-changing. I thank Rosemary Bishop for believing in Waverley, who paid it forward and continues to believe in all of us, alumni and current students. Being able to experience the world outside Darwin opened my eyes, broadened my horizons and gave me the chance to explore people and cultures different to my own.
- You went from living in Darwin, NT, to Sydney’s Rose Bay. How was that transition, and how were you supported being away from home?
The transition, in the beginning, was hard. Homesickness was a big obstacle in the first term, which is typical of new boarders. My parents couldn’t visit me at the drop of a hat, so I had to be strong, and it built up my resilience. Skype and Facetime calls were frequent. As for the hands-on presence and support, Yalari had a Student Support Officer for the students in Sydney and she helped me through a lot of my initial struggles.
- How did you settle into Kambala and what was the most important lesson you learned there?
I remember the first time I met the Director of Boarding, Mrs Duffy, at Kambala in Year 7. She called a meeting with myself and a girl called Shanelle, as we were the only two Yalari students at the time. Mrs Duffy’s words still ring in my ears. She said: “You are the first-ever Indigenous students this school has had, and for many of our students and even some staff, you will be the first Indigenous people they have met in their lives.”
So at the age of 12, fresh off the plane from Darwin, I was shocked into a state of awareness that every action I made and every conversation I had at Kambala would not only shape someone’s point of view on me personally but their entire perception of Yalari, my culture and my people. But Shanelle and I were strong personalities and determined to represent our mob with poise and charm with our ‘Blak Excellence’.
I made many friends in the day school and played Saturday sports including basketball, netball and touch rugby. I also participated in extracurriculars such as public speaking, singing lessons and choir, and the school’s musical. I even went on a cultural exchange to Japan in Year 11, which shaped my current path in life.
At Kambala, I learned to enjoy life to the fullest and focus on the positives and people around you who want to see you thrive. That saying, “it takes a village to raise a child”, is definitely true. My Yalari and Kambala village raised me alongside my family, and it is because of all my connections with staff, students and friends that I am the person I am today.
- What are you doing now and what difference did the scholarship make to your future do you think?
After graduating from Kambala in 2018, I returned home and began a career as a broadcaster and social media coordinator at the Top End Aboriginal Bush Broadcasting Association (TEABBA Radio). I was only going to take a gap year off to work but COVID intervened, and I stayed at TEABBA Radio longer, gaining a number of certificate qualifications. I returned to Sydney in 2023 and began a double degree in Communications and International Studies at the University of Technology Sydney.
I am also an ambassador for You Can Sit with Me, a kindness campaign designed to create inclusive and caring school communities. This program was a significant support for me throughout high school and continues to be a cause close to my heart.
The Yalari scholarship provided a strong educational foundation, but also the confidence to stretch myself further every day. It provided me with the best academic education I could have asked for, and the lessons I learned outside of the classroom and confidence I gained in myself is priceless. I couldn’t be more grateful to Waverley and Yalari.
- And now you work at Kambala too as a boarding staff member, tutor and mentor to other Yalari girls. Why is it important to you to support other Indigenous students coming through on the scholarships?
I want to support the current Yalari students and help them grow and enjoy their time at the school, like I did. Paying it forward means giving back to your community, so I want to support our future leaders to go further than us.
Earlier this year, I became one of the founding members of the Yalari Alumni Advisory Board. We received training through the Australian Institute of Company Directors in governance and the responsibilities of being a director on a board.
Just like Yalari’s belief that education is the key to generational change, the transferring of knowledge goes both ways – we learn and share knowledge equally, which will create that change. When we learn from each other, we continue and contribute to the change that Waverley’s teacher started all those years ago.
Each year, Yalari hosts a series of gala dinners around Australia for those interested in learning more about the programs. These events celebrate the achievements of Yalari students and Kayla was the keynote speaker at Sydney earlier this year. The next dinner is in Brisbane on 8 September.