Cheyenne Maymuru is one of hundreds of young Aboriginal people who have left their communities to attend elite private schools in Australia's biggest cities, and while there are many success stories, others are left with broken dreams.
• After 10 years of awarding scholarships, there are calls to review the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation
• A former student says she did not receive enough support and found the experience of boarding school "deeply distressing"
• Academics are also questioning dropout rates, claiming they are much higher than those reported
As a teenager, Ms Maymuru was granted a scholarship with the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation (AIEF), but what started out as an exciting opportunity soon became an experience she described as "deeply distressing".
Her case is not an isolated one and after 10 years in operation and more than $160 million in funding, academics are calling for the AIEF to be reviewed and say the organisation is under-reporting the number of Indigenous students who drop out.
In 2012, Ms Maymuru started boarding at an elite school in Sydney's eastern suburbs.
She had hoped to join the Air Force and believed a private education at St Catherine's School would create better opportunities for her.
The school was a long way from where she grew up in Arnhem Land and the small town of Boreen Point in Queensland.
She was one of a few Indigenous students at the school and in the new environment, Ms Maymuru felt the weight of expectations.
"I wanted to make my parents proud of me, I wanted the school to be proud of me, I wanted to be proud of me. There was a lot riding on it," she said.
Not long after she started year 7, her father became seriously ill.
Speaking to the ABC, Ms Maymuru claimed she was worried about her dad at the time, got into trouble at school and was suspended. And she claimed the school asked her not to return.
"The reason I was suspended at first [was] I was smoking in the toilets in the boarding house," she said.
"That was kind of a 'screw you, I'm not doing this'. I was in a bad head space."
Now 19, she believes the school and the scholarship foundation could have done more to support her at a vulnerable time.
Ms Maymuru claimed she was not offered counselling and she never heard from St Catherine's or AIEF again.
"I was very upset, I was crying, I needed help with mental health [support]," she said.
"Why get rid of somebody if you haven't tried to help them?
That's kind of a last resort."
Ms Maymuru said she was now happy working in health care in Arnhem Land, but she never successfully returned to school or completed her year 12 studies.
She is one of hundreds of Indigenous students who have attended prestigious schools across Australia with the help of the AIEF.
The AIEF pay a portion of the total cost, with the partner school, parents and other government payments also contributing to the cost of boarding and tuition.
As one of the major players in the Indigenous boarding sector, the AIEF has received a total of $164 million in funding since it began in 2008, $83 million of that coming from the Federal Government.
The not-for-profit organisation claims to be the most successful Indigenous education program in the country and part of that claim relates to how few AIEF students drop out.
What's going on with dropout rates?
In February, the AIEF said for the decade it had been in operation, less than 10 per cent of its students had dropped out.
But the AIEF's own figures do not support that claim.
The AIEF's published data shows:
• 1,045 students have been awarded a scholarship
• 490 have graduated
• 342 are continuing
• 213 have dropped out
That puts the dropout rate at 20 per cent, with a 46 per cent graduation rate.
Native American Fulbright scholar Victor Lopez-Carmen has analysed Indigenous scholarship programs around Australia. He called for the AIEF to be clearer in the way the organisation reported its numbers.
"I think it's an obligation of any organisation that deals with Indigenous youth to carefully and accurately represent [those] statistics," he said.
Mr Lopez-Carmen is now calling for an independent external review of AIEF.
"To my knowledge there has not been an independent review of AIEF and they're dealing with over $100 million in funding."
The AIEF disputed the need for an independent review and said hundreds of its graduates had gone on to succeed in a range of fields.
The organisation's deputy chief executive Renee Coffey said: "We have a number of students who have chosen to leave but overwhelmingly the vast majority are completing.
"Boarding school isn't for every child and that's Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.
"It takes a lot of determination and resilience for a student to stay at the school, and that's not going to work for every child.
"No program has a 100 per cent success rate."
Do some dropouts 'disappear' from the data?
Mr Lopez-Carmen's key criticism of AIEF's reporting was that it did not include students who dropped out in their first year at boarding school.
"A lot of the youth who drop out in the first year apparently aren't considered," he said.
"So there [are] all these youth who dropped out, who have essentially disappeared and are not considered AIEF scholars."
Ms Coffey said students who left the school in their first year were not counted in dropout figures because they were not technically eligible for AIEF funding at that point.
The AIEF called this retrospective funding model "risk-sharing".
"It's kind of a multi-way partnership, so our scholarships start once that student finishes that first year then they are funded as one of our scholars," Ms Coffey said.
"In order to be eligible for AIEF funding they need to have completed one year of school and then we will pay for that first year onwards."
The AIEF helps Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families pay a portion of private boarding school fees and the schools and Abstudy also pick up some of the cost.
'Disappeared' dropouts may never return to school
Marnie O'Bryan, an honorary research fellow at the University of Melbourne, said students told her AIEF's funding model put additional pressure on them as they dealt with the culture shock of boarding school.
"It was traumatic for them," Dr O'Bryan said.
"[They said] they felt it was punitive, that somehow they felt that they were being coerced to remain at school when there were very good reasons why they should drop out of school."
What concerned Dr O'Bryan the most was her research that suggested many students who dropped out of scholarships never returned to the classroom.
She described these students as "some of the most educationally vulnerable in Australia".
"Young people who drop out of boarding school are at a very high risk of not re-engaging with their education when they return home," Dr O'Bryan said.
Despite thousands of Indigenous students in boarding programs, and the public funding that goes into scholarships, Dr O'Bryan said the Government was not tracking the outcomes of students who dropped out.
"It was consistent across all my research that young people who drop out of boarding school received no support from their scholarship organisations," she said.
"It was as if they had become a disappointment to the provider."
She said much more could be done to ensure boarding schools were culturally safe places.
"Some people talk about schools learning by 'trial and error', but of course that's a problem because the trial and error is happening on a young person's life," Dr O'Bryan said.
"I've never seen a young person drop out for no reason. It's not because they're lazy, it's not because they feel education offers them nothing."
Ms Maymuru's former school, St Catherine's, declined to comment on individual cases, but said it had made changes to the way it supported Indigenous girls in recent years, which included more support services.
"We are aware of the difficulties some Indigenous students could face and consequently are constantly striving to improve our practices and processes to make their journey a happy and successful one," the school said.
"In 2019 the role of Indigenous coordinator will be expanded to include all aspects of the Indigenous girls' wellbeing."
'I had someone that I could talk to'
The AIEF pointed to the hundreds of its successful graduates. Among them is Tanika Davis, who is undertaking postgraduate studies and works for an Aboriginal health service.
In 2010, when she moved from regional New South Wales to take up a scholarship at the prestigious Kincoppal Rose Bay school in Sydney, she was paired with a mentor.
Ms Davis said the whole experience changed her life.
"I hold AIEF quite close to my heart," she said.
"Why can't Aboriginal kids have that equal opportunity to go to one of the best schools in Sydney? When you talk about equality, I think education is paramount."
Ms Davis said she still kept in touch with her friends from the boarding house and her mentor.
"I clicked with my mentor, so I'm really fortunate that I had that someone that I could talk to — not just about school, but about life," she said.
Ms Maymuru said her time as an Indigenous boarder would have been easier if there was a greater focus on supporting Aboriginal people with culturally competent mentors.
"It would've been easier if I had someone to go to who actually understands what it's like to be Aboriginal," she said.
"I was wanting people to ask me if I needed help. I didn't know how to ask for help. I was 12 years old."