NAIDOC Week is a chance to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Here, we shine a light on the legacy and connection of our first and five hundredth Aboriginal graduates.
“I was encouraged by my great-grandmother and my mother who both brought me up,” Isabelle Adams, Murdoch University’s first Aboriginal graduate, said.
“They saw something in me.”
Ms Adams arrived at Murdoch after being told by another university that, as an Aboriginal student, she had to undertake a mandatory bridging course. That didn’t sit well with the tenacious young teacher.
“At the time, Murdoch had just started so I contacted them and asked if I could come and do my studies for a degree.
“They welcomed me with open arms.”
Having started her career as a kindergarten teacher, Ms Adams arrived as a mature aged student to undertake a Bachelor of Education followed by a Master of Education.
“I saw the studies here as a stepping stone to getting the positions that I wanted in education – and that I achieved – even though people at the time said it was pie in the sky and that I'd never make it,” Ms Adams said.
“So going up to get the degree certificate was an incredibly proud experience.”
Ms Adams went on to become a superintendent of education in the Department of Education, which she felt was like reaching for the stars as an Aboriginal early childhood educator.
“It was an opportunity to make a difference to the education journey of children everywhere,” Ms Adams said.
However, that wasn’t before she made a lasting contribution to the students that would follow in her footsteps.
Together with another Aboriginal graduate, Mara West, she was encouraged by university leadership to establish an Aboriginal Advisory Council, which began a long and strong focus on Aboriginal knowledge, culture and student success at Murdoch.
“We were pretty assertive,” Ms Adams recalled with a laugh.
“We looked at everything from the Aboriginal employment strategy to setting up a student support unit to provide support for the very few Aboriginal students that came to Murdoch at the time.”
As Ms Adams knows firsthand, one of the biggest challenges faced by Aboriginal students is making the adjustment to university life. The large workload and the need to feel belonging and connection with peers in a big place can be hard.
“A big part of Aboriginal culture is family, connection and learning, but the Western world teaches and learns in a different way which can make beginning university a difficult transition,” Ms Adams said.
This is the very reason Kulbardi exists today. It’s more than just a place for gathering – it’s a place to provide support and learning, to ask questions, to foster and motivate and to help Aboriginal students pave their own way to university.
“It’s a home and a place for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to flourish and I’m proud that I played a part in establishing that.”
It’s a legacy that many have benefited from. Just ask Justyne Eades, Murdoch’s 500th Aboriginal graduate.
“Every time I need some support, whether that’s printing, a computer, advice or just a chat, they’re always there and they've always had wonderful staff supporting me along my journey,” Ms Eades says.
“It’s great to be an Aboriginal student at Murdoch because you certainly are supported right through your studies, so I think we should all be thankful for the work Isabelle did here.”