Changing face of Indigenous education
The first Aboriginal student graduated from the University of Melbourne in 1959. Since then, the higher education landscape has radically changed for the better.
For the past five years while I have been studying at the University of Melbourne, and now undertaking my PhD in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, I have been a guest on the country of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nations, sovereign custodians of the land on which the University stands.
My family belongs to Gumbaynngirr country on the mid-north east coast, the birthplace of my paternal grandmother. I also have strong cultural and familial ties to England and Scotland.
I introduce myself in this way firstly because it reveals a cultural location embedded within place – a blood connection to country, a sovereign connection – which runs thousands of generations deep. It’s a connection I share with all fellow Indigenous staff and students at the University today.
That’s a pretty amazing connection to have – to be able to say our families and communities, without whom we would not be here, have walked this Earth in this place for not a few thousand years, but tens of thousands of generations … So that’s the first reason.
The second is to emphasise that the colonial history of Australia, like in any colonial settler context, informs complex embodiments in the present, and I am a reflection of this.
This year, there are more Indigenous students commencing at the University of Melbourne than ever before.
This is big. Particularly as for much of last century the University, like universities across Australia, was not a place where Aboriginal people felt they belonged.
Not because we didn’t possess the knowledge and intellectual aptitude to succeed here, but because our knowledge was not valued. And not because we didn’t fight to have access to the education and the social and cultural capital that attending this institution provides.
But because the power brokers of this place – the academics, intellectuals and administrators – felt more comfortable appropriating our knowledge in books with their names on them for their own purposes, and literally keeping our ancestors’ skeletons and remains in basements, than dealing with our living, breathing presence.
That’s a pretty hard-hitting statement to make – but nonetheless, in reflecting on where we have come from as a University, not so long ago, we can view the full significance of where we are today.
Two years ago the late Dr Margaret William-Weir spoke at the University of Melbourne’s Wominjeka. Meaning ‘welcome’ in the Woiworung language of the Wurundjeri people, the Wominjeka is now an important annual event in the University calendar.
In 1959 Aunty Margo was the first Aboriginal student – completing a Diploma in Physical Education – to graduate from a university in Australia. Now, 57 years later, and as Vice-Chancellor Professor Glyn Davis has confirmed, the University of Melbourne has the largest commencing Indigenous student cohort in the University’s history.
Every Indigenous student and staff member contributes to this place of learning being one that each of us can feel like we belong in, and are entitled to be at. This is a significant point. Too often, as Aboriginal people, we are made to feel we should be grateful – grateful to be able to access this kind of education, particularly because many of our mob might not have the same chance.
Todd Fernando (a Wiradjuri PhD student at the University of Melbourne in medical anthropology) and I have been talking a lot lately about what it means to feel entitled to be here, rather than grateful.
If we could pass a message on to incoming students, it would be that you are entitled to be here, this University is lucky to have you. And because of that, you need to demand the support you need to not only succeed but to assert strength in this space, in your identity, in the knowledge you hold, and your collective histories and in our diverse and complex individual stories.
In terms of the University of Melbourne, as more and more Indigenous students make the strategic decision to further their study here, we need to be ready.
We need to make sure that the University is in a position to recognise the knowledge, intellectual standpoints and diverse experience of Indigenous students, whatever they may be.
Increasingly we are in a good position to do so. People have fought long and hard, from within this institution and outside of it, to make it so this place of learning is and can be one where Torres Strait and Aboriginal people feel they belong – in all the different kinds of ways that we are who we are. A place where we can feel entitled to be.
I’d like to conclude with a personal note.
I have been a student and a staff member on and off at the University of Melbourne for over half a decade now. But never have I felt the sustained joy I’ve been experiencing over the last few weeks as I’ve met new Koori students from across Victoria and other Indigenous students who have travelled from around Australia to be here.
I’m sure as this cohort grows in the coming years the Indigenous community fostered at the University of Melbourne will be a positive force to be reckoned with.
And it really truly is a community I feel blessed to be part of.
Banner image: Indigenous staff including Richard Frankland, Professors Marcia Langton and Ian Anderson and Wurundjeri Elder Aunty Diane Kerr with University of Melbourne graduating students at the Indigenous Graduate Gala Dinner held at Zinc on the Yarra River in Melbourne on 22 October 2015. Picture: John Henry.