Susan Pelka

“It would be nice to know that there’s a place for people that don’t have maths, don’t have a language, but need to learn just like everyone.”

In her own words (adapted from her Living History interview)

My name’s Susan Pelka, I’m a company director, and I graduated from La Trobe in 1975.

At school, teachers said, “No don’t go and do nursing, you can pass your VCE (or HSC as it was then) and go to university”. I said to my father, “The teachers said I’m good enough to go to university” and his response was “Well, people like us don’t go to university Susan”, and that was because he was a builder’s labourer and at the time he was actually building La Trobe, I think it was Menzie’s College.

He would start work really early, but I’d see him after work sometimes. My mother always said he was very proud of the fact I was going to university, but I actually think it’s a protective mechanism that many people have that they don’t want their kids to put themselves out there in case they get knocked down.

We came as ten pound migrants from England; he was Polish and was allowed to stay in England after the war. We all came out here in 1967 and we lived in the housing commission flats in Park Street, South Melbourne. Mum used to walk down to the Prahran Market to buy food because there were four of us, and she said to me she would search the faces of the people in the street and saw no one she knew. For her, the move was really quite devastating.

Five years ago we established a learning centre for women and girls who are refugees and asylum seekers. Many of them are African or Syrian, and we teach them English and life skills, and we help them get food from the food bank. Some of them are going onto university, some are moving into TAFE courses, and some of them we’re teaching how to look after their children.

When I went to La Trobe it was the only university that would take me and I’d like to know it is being as accepting of people that were different as it was for when it accepted me.