Future First Nations teachers honoured with scholarship to Rome

Young Aboriginal and South Sea Islanders Jedda Ellison and Hayden Kubler will represent their Indigenous heritage on a global stage after being named recipients of Australian Catholic University’s 2022 Francis Xavier Conaci Scholarship.

The future First Nations teachers, both studying at ACU, arrived in Rome on June 29 and will undertake study at the university’s Rome Campus as part of their scholarship.

Through the scholarship, Jedda and Hayden have also been invited to represent their First Nations mobs in Rome’s NAIDOC Week celebrations, being hosted by Australia’s Ambassador to the Holy See, Ambassador Chiara Porro.

The Francis Xavier Conaci Scholarship was named after an Aboriginal Yued Noongar boy who travelled to Rome in 1849 from New Norcia in Western Australia to study in the Benedictine monastery. Conaci, meaning ‘black cockatoo’, died unexpectedly at age 11 following an illness while still in Rome. It is understood his ancestral remains are interred with the other members of the Benedictine community, in the Basilica of St Paul’s Outside the Walls.

Jedda and Hayden will pay their respects to Francis Xavier Conaci at his resting place and hope to discover more about the young Aboriginal boy in whose footsteps they will follow.

“I’m particularly interested in understanding the connection the Catholic Church now has to the traditional owners of the Perth area, and I acknowledge that reconciliation has been at the forefront of the Church’s mind when honouring Conaci’s life,” Hayden said.

Jedda is an Aboriginal Yuwibarra woman, whose paternal family come from Yuwi Country in North Queensland, and is also a South Sea Islander with connections to Vanuatu. She is in her final year of a Bachelor of Education (Primary) Away from Base at ACU and is the coordinator of the Indigenous Cultural Support unit, Garanyali, at Southern Cross Catholic College, Scarborough across the school’s four campuses.

Hayden is an Aboriginal and South Sea Islander person whose family comes from Goreng country in Central West Queensland, and Tanna Island, but grew up on Butchulla country. He is studying a Bachelor of Education (Secondary)/Bachelor of Arts and before leaving for Rome was supporting Jedda’s role at Southern Cross Catholic College. Hayden is also the president of the Indigenous Student Society at ACU’s Brisbane Campus, working closely on a number of university initiatives supporting young First Nations people.

Both Hayden and Jedda’s family history is marked by the practice of blackbirding, which they both described as the “disgusting practice” whereby men, women and children from the Pacific Islands, mostly Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, were forced into slave labour in Australia.

The two Catholic university students hope in their lifetime as educators that Australian schools would eventually teach local First Nations languages, honour Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander spirituality and culture, and engage in respectful dialogue about their ancient history.

“The main takeaway that I want my students to have is it’s all about learning,” Hayden said.

“It’s making sure our kids are as supported as they can be culturally, spiritually and physically as well. 

“As Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders, we have a beautiful and fantastic culture, and spirituality, science, knowledge that we’re willing and very open to sharing, we have been since people got here. Indigenous culture is Australian culture at the end of the day.

“I want students to respectfully and thoughtfully engage with something that’s been here for more than 65,000 years, which pre-dates everything else.”

Director of ACU’s First Peoples Directorate Jane Ceolin said the university was proud to partner with Global and Education Pathways to enable Hayden and Jedda to undertake a unit of study in Rome.

“The scholarship presents exciting leadership opportunities,” Ms Ceolin said.

“ACU is committed to reconciliation, and the Conaci Scholarship enables us to honour and remember the significant story of Francis Xavier Conaci.”

Jedda said the opportunity to represent Indigenous Australians in Rome through the Francis Xavier Scholarship was “overwhelming”, but she felt proud to be representing her mob.

“It’s an enormous amount of pressure because I feel as though I’m being asked to be a representative for all First Nations peoples and to represent all of us,” Jedda said.

“We have all got stories and we’ve all got lots of things to share. I would hate to not do it right.”                                                                 

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