Tanya McDonald on education and her experiences of family violence

"I felt I lost my dignity, self-confidence, any passions I had … I wasn't the Tanya I once knew."

At the age of 38, mother of four Tanya McDonald enrolled in a Diploma of Community Services at South West TAFE. During her studies, Tanya worked as a paralegal at a local law firm, helping vulnerable women while recovering from her own experiences of family violence.

Tanya McDonald holds her award on the red carpet at the Victorian Training Awards
Tanya McDonald holds her award on the red carpet at the Victorian Training Awards

Since graduation last year, Tanya has worked at South West Healthcare developing and implementing a Reconciliation Action Plan to address the health needs of the local Aboriginal community and making the hospital more culturally safe and appropriate. At the 2019 Victorian Training Awards, Tanya was awarded Koorie Student of the Year.

In a wide ranging conversation, Tanya talked to us about family violence, her advocacy work and how education transformed her life.

Question: How did family violence impact on your work and education?

Tanya: At the time I was experiencing family violence I was working in administration and finance in my local Aboriginal community. The impact that [family violence] had on my job was devastating. My relationships with other work colleagues quickly deteriorated and this resulted in my resignation from the job that I loved.  It also negatively impacted the respect and relationships that I'd cultivated within my own Aboriginal community. 

I felt I lost my dignity, self-confidence [and] any passions I had. 

Mostly I lost the person who I knew was me – I wasn't the Tanya I once knew. I felt like I was walking on egg shells all the time. I had to always be aware of what I said, who I spoke to, where to look but the worst was not being able to have any friends which included life-long friendships.

Question: How has the Diploma of Community Services at South West TAFE made a difference in your life?

Tanya: The Diploma of Community Services at South West TAFE has had such a profound effect not only on me but my four children. As well as learning the skills and knowledge in this field, the personal development for myself has been the biggest impact.

It has taught me to be confident in myself and capable of achieving anything I can put my mind to, no matter how challenging it may be. 

It has literally taught me to be a better person, a better mother [and] better friend. Most importantly, I love the Tanya I am today.

Question: How did the TAFE support you to maintain your education and complete your Diploma?

Tanya: TAFE's support throughout my training in community services was absolutely amazing. My teacher, Wendy, was and still is my inspiration to this day. She pushed and drove me to achievements in different areas that I thought I would never be capable of.  The flexibility of the training while I was experiencing mental health difficulties, being a single mum with young children and dealing with court processes, plus my discovery of my Aboriginal culture. South West TAFE allowed my children to come to class at times when I had no other options.

Question: How did the Diploma assist you in your role as paralegal?

Tanya: The diploma definitely assisted my role when I was working as the paralegal for the Aboriginal Family Violence Legal Service (now Djirra). I had spent three years going through the court system and realising the emotional struggles that come with that, like the tough decisions you face while you're trying to protect yourself and your family. 

I learnt a great deal of understanding, empathy, honesty and coping strategies. That's going to stick with me forever.

Question: What advice would you have for a person experiencing family violence?

Tanya: My advice for anyone experiencing family violence is, one) please never be ashamed of who you are and two) talk to a close friend about what is happening early. 

Having support from another person is critical. It can be the key to getting help and support, no matter what stage you are at. 

Definitely seeking advice from the appropriate supports and services. They will guide you on the effects [of family violence] not just on yourself, but your family, friends and other social interactions. But most importantly always remember who you are. Be proud, caring, happy, fun loving – whatever you are, let you be you and not controlled by anyone else other than yourself. Because you are not what someone else wants you to be.

Help and support

If you are concerned for your safety or that of someone else, contact the police, and call 000 for emergency assistance.

If you have experienced violence or sexual assault and require immediate or ongoing assistance, contact 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) to talk to a counsellor from the National Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence hotline.

For confidential support and information, contact Safe Steps' 24/7 family violence response line on 1800 015 188.