Gemma McKinnon first stepped on to the UNSW campus as a high school student. Although she had always wanted to go to university, it was daunting taking those first few steps. She had never been on a university campus before. It was like another world.
McKinnon was enrolled in Nura Gili’s Winter School, a program for Indigenous high school students to experience university before starting an undergraduate degree. She recalls sitting down in a lecture theatre for the first time, unsure as to where this new path would lead her.
“I have been through a pathway that many other Indigenous students have gone through at UNSW,” she says.
“By going from [Nura Gili’s] Winter School and pre-Law program, to undergraduate study and even working at the Law firm that I had first visited in Winter School, I’ve come to realise the huge influence that university can have on our Indigenous students and their decisions.”
Today, the proud Barkindji woman is the Project Officer for the UNSW Pro-Vice Chancellor Indigenous, Professor Megan Davis. Working closely with Professor Davis and her team, McKinnon has also supported the Referendum Council in their work which culminated in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
In many ways, McKinnon is the embodiment of ‘Grow Our Own’ – one of the three pillars of UNSW Indigenous Strategy – which aims to develop UNSW’s own Indigenous academics, critical thinkers and staff members. It is this personal experience that McKinnon hopes to channel as the new ‘Grow Our Own’ ambassador.
“I think that it’s important to encourage Indigenous people to consider academia as a potential career – it can be such a valuable way to contribute to our communities,” she says.
“When I was an undergraduate student, I didn’t really consider postgraduate study, or even staying in academia in a professional sense. Yet, Indigenous researchers play such an important role in self-determination – to find the solutions for our own community.
Developing this pool of talent starts from a grassroots level too – with support, pathways and scholarships helping to carve the path ahead for our students.”
Culture, Country and Giving Back
Elizabeth Mayers, a Worimi woman from the mid-north coast, is an active member of the local Aboriginal community and joins McKinnon as an ambassador. As a Student Support Officer at Nura Gili Centre for Indigenous Programs, Mayers also knows from experience how important the university environment can be for Indigenous peoples.
“It’s really important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to come here [to UNSW] and know that they are valued, feel safe and can be proud of their culture,” Mayers says.
Mayers, who champions the ‘Country and Culture’ pillar of UNSW’s strategy, views this as an important part of university life, for both the community and students.
“Having an Indigenous cultural footprint prominent across the university is important not only as a way to recognise and respect the land that we are on and the Traditional Owners but also to give confidence to our students through a culturally empowered environment.”
Mayers says the recent announcement of UNSW's first building to be named after an Aboriginal person – the Esme Timbery building – is an important step in the right direction.
“Having a building at UNSW named after Aunty Esme is amazing, she’s a much-loved local community member and artist,” she says.
“Further cementing connections with the local Aboriginal community is really important – that’s why I also bring in local Elders from La Perouse to the university to yarn with our students and to build those connections.”
For Rebekah Torrens, these community connections also extend the other way. UNSW can play a big role, she says, in fostering a sense of civic responsibility for Indigenous students and staff to give back to the community.
“I came to university from a small community… and leaving your community to come to Sydney is really daunting, particularly for Indigenous students,” Torrens says.
“You’re leaving the comfort and safety of your community and your home,” she says. “It can be tough. But, going to university gives our students and staff the opportunity to then give back to those communities – which is an important part of our culture.”
Torrens joins McKinnon and Mayers as Indigenous ambassador, championing the ‘Give Back’ pillar of UNSW’s strategy.
After years of teaching and then becoming a youth worker with Aboriginal children, Torrens jumped at the opportunity to return to UNSW to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
Today, she works in student services at Nura Gili and uses her personal experience of studying at UNSW as a way to relate to students.
“I remember having late nights during my own university experience, sitting up at 1 am trying to study after the kids had gone to bed… I loved being at university and learning. So, it’s great that I can now share my own experiences and support students in their journey,” she said.
“It’s one way I like to give back.”
One year after the launch of the UNSW Indigenous Strategy there has been significant progress with improving Indigenous student support services, and working on improving the Indigenous studies programs and subject offerings.
UNSW also held a NAIDOC After Dark light show earlier this year.
“The most important element of the strategy is that all our initiatives are influenced by the three pillars, and all of our pillars are interlinked… Culture and Country influences Grow Our Own, which influences Give Back, and then back the other way,” McKinnon says.
“Each pillar has a flow-on effect. It’s a holistic and long-term approach, it can drive real change.”