Murdoch University has awarded its highest honour, the degree of Doctor of the University (honoris causa), to Yamatji elder Mara West in recognition of her significant contribution to the welfare and development of Aboriginal peoples in Western Australia.
Dr West received her degree alongside hundreds of graduating students at the Perth Convention and Exhibition Centre last night.
In a public and private sector career spanning more than 40 years, Dr West has championed the social, political, and economic position of Aboriginal peoples in Australian society and is today recognised by her community as a leader in Aboriginal affairs.
She is an integral member of the Kulungu Aboriginal Research Development Unit at Telethon Kids Institute, providing culturally safe practices that respect the knowledge and authority of community elders in research activities. She is also chair of the HEAL (Healthy Environment and Lives) Network WA Aboriginal Reference Group, which actively uses Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges and wisdom to help protect Australians from the health impacts of climate change.
"It’s a great honour for me to be standing here this evening and I stand here with mixed feelings as I remember what was, what is and what could be," she said in her address to graduates.
Born on the banks of the Gascoyne River, Dr West’s early years were fraught with poverty, hardship, racism, and disadvantage, but she decided early on that she wanted to change the perceptions of Aboriginal peoples and to close the gap in health and social issues.
Encouraged by her mother to pursue an education, Dr West was the fourth Aboriginal person to graduate from Murdoch University, completing a Bachelor of Arts in Humanities in Comparative Literature and Communication Studies, followed by Honours in Sustainable Development. She was also vital in setting up the first Murdoch University Aboriginal Advisory Committee which reported directly to the Vice Chancellor.
Since 1988 Dr West has worked as part of Murdoch’s Remote Area Developments Group to deliver water and wastewater systems to remote WA communities, improving their environmental health and living conditions. She is also chair of the Homelands Water and Energy Group which is linked to Murdoch’s Ngangk Yira Institute for Change.
As well as her vital work to improve Aboriginal health, Dr West has worked closely with communities across the State to set up training centres to ensure Aboriginal people have access to a wide range of education and training. She is currently the only Aboriginal chairperson of a TAFE governing council in Australia.
Murdoch University Vice Chancellor Professor Andrew Deeks said Dr West had shown what was possible when Aboriginal and University communities respectfully collaborate.
“Dr West’s knowledge and leadership has strengthened the link between Aboriginal and Murdoch University communities and has shown how academia can successfully meet wider needs,” Professor Deeks said.
“Dr West gives her time freely, continually encouraging her friends and colleagues to walk together to make this world a better place.
“We are proud to bestow this honorary degree onto someone so worthy, who has had such a positive impact on the lives of Western Australians.”
Dr West said the accolade was an unexpected honour.
“I walk in two worlds and every day is a challenge as there are moments of uncertainty, but there are moments of pure joy,” she said.
“We live in interesting times where the world and our environment are rapidly changing. Have the courage and passion to be a great thinker and visionary change maker committed to developing creative solutions that will address the social, economic, and political issues facing us.
As global citizens and graduates of Murdoch University you have the power to be change agents.
“We live in one of the best countries in the world but what sort of Australia do we want for our children and their children? Let’s walk together to create a better tomorrow for all Australians.”