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Curtin University
John Curtin Day
John Curtin Medallists

May O'Brien (1998)

As an inaugural recipient of the John Curtin Medal, Aboriginal educator May O’Brien feels honoured to be compared with former Prime Minister John Curtin.

“I am extremely surprised at the award, but also very honoured because John Curtin was also a visionary. He worked hard for his people at the grass roots level — that’s what he stood for,” Ms O’Brien said.

Ms O’Brien’s vision was that one day universities throughout Australia would have hundreds of Aboriginal students. She was instrumental in setting up the Aboriginal bridging course at Curtin University of Technology to give young Aboriginal people a chance to receive a tertiary education.

“It was a long struggle to get the bridging course considered because they were worried about people getting through the back door into university,” she recalled.

“But I told them that when they were finished, they could proudly go through the front door.”

Ms O’Brien is no stranger to pride. Born in 1933 near Kalgoorlie, she recalls having to leave the local townsite at noon every day – it was a white man’s law that no Aboriginal person be in town after that.

She was placed at an early age in the Mount Margaret Mission near Laverton until 1950.

She headed for Perth where she loved high school so much that she became a qualified teacher and returned for five years to the mission that raised her.

Ms O’Brien was a leader in the field of education and in the Aboriginal community, teaching for 25 years at rural and metropolitan schools before establishing Aboriginal Committees on Education throughout Western Australia to increase the awareness and understanding of teachers of the needs and aspirations of Aboriginal people.

In 1984, she was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to study overseas educational programs aimed at enabling indigenous people to retain their own cultural identity while adjusting to mainstream culture.

She took early retirement 10 years ago to pursue her passion for writing children’s literature, and has continued a busy role in community service activities.

She has been active in sports coaching, served on various committees of Aboriginal concerns, and appeared before the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the Parliamentary Select Committee into the Achievement of Indigenous Peoples of WA, the Beazley Inquiry into Education in 1983/4, and the Schools’ Commission Consultative Group (the Karmel Report).

“I have a lot of energy and I am so interested in people and what I can give back to WA and my country,” she said.