For CQUniversity Cairns student, Santiago Mills, community is everything—and the pandemic has only made that dedication stronger.

The 23-year-old Wuthathi and Kulkalgul man is currently studying a Bachelor of Construction Management, and said he chose his career path with a goal of improving infrastructure for Torres Strait Islander communities.

“I wanted to build a set of skills that would be useful, and that I could go back to the islands and share, and that would help other young kids see the possibilities of going to uni too,” he said.

“I aim to improve the infrastructure by managing its construction with innovative building techniques I learn throughout my studies and career. I also aim to pass on my knowledge of building techniques to Indigenous people, young and old.”

The qualified carpenter shared his experience and vision as part of CQU’s national Festival of Change, a free online learning festival that aims to spark change through conversation and inspiration.

He was one of six young people to share his story as part of the Generation COVID? Youth panel, and spoke about the challenges of combining study and career during a pandemic.

“It makes you more resilient, but I also realise that I’m lucky—in a lot of places, the opportunities aren’t there.”

“It’s so easy for young Indigenous youth to lose their jobs and not be supported to have a career.”

Mills also spoke about the need for Indigenous autonomy in managing communities, and said the issue was amplified through the pandemic.

“There’s been a huge setback for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are already disadvantaged and suffering inequality—resources should be in place for us to manage our own affairs, particularly at a time when it could be life and death decision-making for our people,” he said.

“I hope it inspired Indigenous youth to believe in themselves and achieve their goals, regardless of the barriers they may face. COVID-19 is only one of the many hurdles young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders will face in their life; it is important to learn from an experience like this and adapt it to create your own opportunities.”

CQUniversity Vice-Chancellor Professor Nick Klomp hosted the Generation COVID? panel, and said he was impressed by the positivity and determination of the speakers.

“There is reason for optimism, and I’m sure we will emerge from COVID-19—but it will take a lot of clear and creative work from our young people, and this panel certainly demonstrated the changemakers’ resilience to do it,” said Professor Klomp.

“As the Festival of Change continues and extends its focus to sustainable regional development and healthy communities, I’m looking forward to really constructive discussion about facing the challenges of our changing world.”

Amid COVID-19, this year’s festival focuses on opportunities to transform communities, grow resilience and drive positive change through a line-up of social innovation workshops and storytelling sessions.

The festival continues until September 17, with all online events open to the public.

By Imogen Kars