My teacher said I’d never finish my degree

By Ibrar Khan  Wednesday, 10 April 2019  @Business School

Kyle Leong (left) and Mitchell Heritage at a UNSW Indigenous Winter School industry visit.

The positive effects a teacher can have on a young person’s life and their pursuit of a professional career are immeasurable. We all know about that teacher, standing at the front of the classroom, charismatic, exuberant, inspiring students and instilling confidence.  But what happens when your teacher isn’t quite so encouraging?

Mitchell Heritage is a proud Kuku-Yalanji and Goorimpul man, and a successful UNSW Business School graduate working for Commonwealth Bank as a Product Manager.

Despite his success, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing.

Like many UNSW Sydney students, he describes his journey as “a bit up and down”. Mr Heritage acknowledges his failures but puts his success down to refuting his doubters.

“Coming from an Indigenous background my journey was more about proving people wrong,” he says.

“I once had a high school teacher of mine tell an entire classroom that I wouldn’t ever finish my degree and a lot of people doubt my ability – so when things didn’t go perfectly I used that as motivation to keep pushing.”

Mr Heritage grew up in Brisbane, the eldest of six children, and was the first in his family to complete a university degree – a Bachelor of Commerce (BCom), International Business/Trade/Commerce in 2015.

Reflecting on his time at university, he says the UNSW Indigenous Winter School was an integral part of his decision to select UNSW Sydney as the place to study his undergraduate degree.

“I was very lucky to receive a place at the Nura Gili UNSW winter school, which meant I was able to spend some time on the campus and basically fell in love with it and decided I wanted to attend the business school,” he says.

“I loved the atmosphere on campus as well as the reputation of the Business School and decided I wanted to go to UNSW. I was also very lucky to receive a Shalom Gamarada Scholarship, which enabled me to make the move to Sydney, and stay on campus.”

Mr Heritage describes himself as a “CommBank lifer”, having worked the phones in branches and eventually receiving a graduate role in 2016. As a graduate, he had a hand in designing the mobile app, internet banking website, and gained experience in small business product lending. He now manages a product “that helps hundreds of thousands of Australians achieve their dreams”.

“I was very, very lucky with the opportunities I’ve been given and so it feels like an obligation on my part to stand up and say ‘I need to give back'. So, I do a couple of different types of mentorship,” he says.

“I mentor students at UNSW Sydney, where I went to university, working with the Business School there and the Indigenous programs they run. I talk through my journey from being that kid in that seat to being that kid in this seat – I’m passionate about Indigenous advancement.

“I’ve told a few people about my long-term career goal to be the first Indigenous CEO of one of the big four banks. Whether that happens or not, that’s to be determined, but I’m going to run pretty hard at it.”

With formal education now behind him, the proud Kuku-Yalanji, Goorimpul and Torres Strait Islander, has some positive advice (unlike his high school teacher) for current and future UNSW Sydney students:

Failure is completely okay: “If you knew the amount of times I’ve failed … it’s how you learn! The lesson is in the struggle, not the victory.”

You deserve everything you ever get: “I know how easy it is to sit there and just let people steal your shine. Don’t allow that to happen. You have earnt the right to be here. You deserve this, embrace it.”

You have an obligation to continue fighting: “Your job is not to just 'take this success' and think that is enough. You owe it to yourselves and your family and our Elders to continue to succeed. Your job is to set a new precedent, set the new standard and shatter any ceiling people try to put on you.”

Always give back: “You cannot expect things to get better if you aren’t in the trenches yourself. Your job is not done when you become successful, in fact, that’s usually when it starts in earnest. Never stop giving back, it will actually give you more satisfaction than just personal success. Trust me.” 

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