Shay Evans celebrates her maiden W-League goal.
Shay Evans celebrates her maiden W-League goal. Photo: Ann Odong, FFA.

It’s out on Country with her community and family that she feels most at ease, where she is the most relaxed. As one of Australia’s most promising rising football talents, it’s also this connection with her community that continues to drive her forward and motivate her in sport and in life.

“I’ve been going out with Dad and the rest of my family to fish and hunt since I was really young. I love it,” she says. “Culture is very important to me. I love my culture and just want to always represent that even through my sport.”

It is these types of memories that fill out Evans' childhood: of camping under the bright stars, fishing with her family, and listening to the stories from her Dad - shared knowledge that has been passed on by Elders in the community for generations. Then there are the memories of countless hours of playing sport and kicking a soccer ball with the other local children. Where the dreams of becoming a professional footballer, of “becoming a Matilda” began to grow.

“I remember that was my dream growing up – to make the women’s national team and join the Matildas,” she says. “It’s the other Indigenous players like Kyah Simon and Lydia Williams that inspired and still inspire me. But also, all Indigenous players in different sports – like in the AFL with Indigenous players there who are proud of who they are and their culture. They inspire me too. Everyone is AFL mad back home.”

Evans, a proud Marra woman, has quickly made her mark in the Australian football scene. She is Vice-Captain of the Young Matildas, Australia’s national under-20 women’s team, and scored her first senior goal in the W-League with Sydney FC last month.  

“I couldn’t believe it when I scored,” she says of her maiden W-League goal. “I just did this big celebration – I don’t know where it came from…I think I’ve re-watched that footage a hundred times.”

Evans smiles as she speaks about the goal, the images of her under the bright lights of the football stadium a world away from Borroloola. When she is asked what the last few years have been like for her, where much of her life changed overnight, she pauses. There’s joy on her face as she lets herself reflect, even if for a second, on everything she has already achieved.

“Yeah,” she says, “I don’t know. It’s all pretty crazy.”

Shadeene 'Shay' Evans is a rising star in sport and education.
Shadeene 'Shay' Evans is a rising star in sport and education.

An opportunity to give back

It’s been a whirlwind few years for the 18-year-old. After playing in the Northern Territory at tournaments in her early teens, she was scouted by then Matildas coach Alen Stajcic and gained the scholarship through the John Moriarty Football program. With the support of the John Moriarty Foundation, Evans made the 3000-kilometre journey from Borroloola in the Northern Territory – a town with less than 900 people and over 800 kilometres to the closest neighbouring town – to Sydney where she joined the prestigious Westfields Sports High and moved in with a host family.

Faced with challenges of homesickness and being away from her community, Evans has still thrived both on and off the football field. It’s been a path that has also led her to UNSW’s Indigenous Preparatory Program in Social Work.

“Education is really important I think, especially to have alongside sport. I wanted to do the social work [pre-program] because back home in the community there are not many social workers,” she says. “Kids go through family problems and don't have many people there to support them and talk them through it and point them in the right direction, or even having someone there to just talk to about life problems. One day I could go back into my community and help and support them and give back. It’d be great to make a positive change for them, and to inspire them all through my soccer too. The community is proud of everything I’m doing, they’re all so supportive.”

Shay Evans taking part in the UNSW Indigenous Prepatory Program
Shay Evans taking part in the UNSW Indigenous Preparatory Program.

UNSW’s Indigenous Preparatory program is an intensive three-week exposure program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students across Business, Education, Law, Medicine, Social Work or Science and Engineering. Each year the program run by Nura Gili attracts Indigenous students from across Australia to explore and gain valuable experience of undergraduate study at UNSW. It’s been a pathway to university for many Indigenous UNSW alumni, with this year’s cohort of nearly 50 students, looking set to be among the next generation of Indigenous game-changers.

With only a couple weeks left of the pre-program, Evans’ says she is enjoying the experience. So far, she’s managing to juggle her training and travel commitments with the demands of university.

“I’m really enjoying having this [pre-program] to do during the day because usually, I am training in the morning or evenings. It’s good to have something else as well,” she says.

Evans’ eyes are still set to the future and to the possibilities that wait for her around the corner. 

“I still have that dream to be in the senior national team, with the Matildas. But I also want to go overseas and play over there – that’s a new goal.”

No matter what the future holds in both sport and education, Evans’ mind will never be far from how she can contribute to her community. 

“I just want to inspire Aboriginal kids to go out and achieve whatever they want to do in life, but still have that connection to who they are and be proud of their culture.”

The UNSW Indigenous Preparatory Programs wrap up on the 18 December 2019 with a celebratory gala dinner.

This story originally appeared on the UNSW Newsroom.