ACU helps Aboriginal youngsters dream bigger dreams

Published: Wednesday 2nd December 2015

Caption: The youngsters from Wilcannia met rugby league star Nathan Merritt, who is South Sydney's greatest ever try scorer.

An ACU-sponsored Sydney tour for a group of Aboriginal youngsters from one of Australia’s most impoverished towns has inspired the young visitors to dream bigger dreams.

The Wilcannia Central School students and their teachers met ACU’s Aboriginal staff and students, and had a taste of big city life outside the confines of their small town, population 700 and almost 1000km west of Sydney.

ACU history teacher Dr Hannah Forsyth, who helped organise the trip, said the students were inspired by ACU Aboriginal students who shared about their experiences of studying at university.

“We hope this may well have inspired them to see that they have a wide range of choices in their lives, including studying at university when they are older", Dr Forsyth said.

“The big thing was ACU and others offered themselves and their resources to these kids, demonstrating that they are important and worthwhile to us and that we believe in them.

“I hope that is a message that helps them as they think about their futures.”

Dr Forsyth said the trip was the result of her research work in Wilcannia and follows ACU’s focus on community engagement.

“While in town we met a teacher who cares for students who would otherwise have slipped through the system. She wanted her students to see that the world is big and that they can do anything,” she said.

ACU, together with the University of Sydney, sponsored the trip, paying for accommodation, food and fuel and helped organize fun activities, including a trip to the aquarium and a Jason Derulo concert.

But the activities also involved Indigenous-themed events, a visit to Koori radio station in Redfern, a writing workshop, and a meeting former rugby league star and Indigenous player Nathan Merritt, South Sydney’s greatest ever try scorer.

“From Nathan, students heard about the struggles with self-esteem that Nathan could describe as a young Indigenous child and the importance of practicing to build confidence in their dreams, like building muscles,” Hannah said.

The ACU First Peoples dinner at Strathfield Campus was a real highlight.

“ACU students spent quality time with Wilcannia kids, helping them to feel more comfortable. Before the evening ended, one student found several distant relatives at the dinner, which helped him to feel at home,” Dr Forsyth.

Wilcannia suffers from the usual problems associated with intergenerational unemployment and trauma and for young people prospects can seem limited by what they see around them.  According to the My School website, 95 per cent of students at Wilcannia Central School perform in the bottom quartile.

“Everyone I spoke to in town sees education as the key to the future for Wilcannia,” Dr Forsyth said. “That’s why this trip was so important.”

Dr Forsyth recently published A History of the Modern Australian University, and said it made her realise that universities often helped to reinforce socio-economic boundaries on the basis of class, race, residence and family connections.

“Very crudely, the closer to the centre of a city and the whiter your skin the more likely you are to go to uni (and get the good jobs that go with tertiary education),” Dr Forsyth said.

“I think universities have to acknowledge their part in systematising privilege and try to do something about it.

“ACU equity initiatives and its community engagement activities are excellent ways of doing that. I am very passionate about this kind of work and hope to connect it to my teaching and research wherever I can.”