Indigenous students shine light on the power of education to create change

Outstanding students celebrated at seventh annual UNSW Indigenous Awards Night.
Adam Phelan | UNSW Newsroom
Rachel Roberts, Burbuga Birrung (Nura Gili) Indigenous Female of the Year (middle) and Kyall Flakerlar Burbuga Birrung (Nura Gili) Indigenous Male of the Year (right). Image: Maja Baska

Rachel Roberts wants to make a difference and believes her Criminology and Indigenous Studies degree is the best place to start. Education, she says, can give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples the tools to advocate for change.

“Never underestimate what you learn in university and how you can take the education you receive back to your community,” she says.

“My studies have given me the skills and tools to break down and articulate issues faced by Indigenous peoples and allows me to better support them.”

Roberts, who is completing a Bachelor of Arts, won the Burbuga Birrung Award for Indigenous Female of the Year at the UNSW Indigenous Awards Night held last week. In total, 27 students were recognised for their outstanding performance and spirit in a night of celebration run by Nura Gili.

“I am so honoured to have received this award, especially knowing the calibre of other Indigenous students attending UNSW,” Roberts says.

“There are so many students I see every day at Nura Gili that are working so hard to break barriers and excel on their educational journeys…it means a lot and I dedicate this award to my grandmother.”

Alongside Roberts, students were recognised for Excellence and Spirit in each of the eight faculties across UNSW and for other achievements such as Indigenous Student Association awards. The faculty Spirit Awards highlighted students who have overcome hardship and shown outstanding commitment to their studies.   

UNSW Law student Jake Fing

UNSW Law Student Jake Fing. Image: Maja Baska

UNSW Law student Jake Fing won the Spirit Award for Law jointly with Katrina Goneis. Through his study at UNSW, Fing has found an avenue for advocacy.

“For me, university was about learning how to navigate the justice sphere…and being able to provide advocacy within a courtroom and also on policies that affect our mob,” he says.

“Through completing tertiary education, or any type of education, it allows us to navigate the cultural interface and walk proudly as Indigenous people in a non-Indigenous society.”

As the chairperson for the Indigenous Student Society, Fing has discovered how a sense of community can also assist in creating a culture of giving back.

“I think as Indigenous people, we all have a type of advocacy that is hard-wired into our identities. We've watched our Elder's and our ancestors fight for different things over the generations,” he says.

2019 UNSW Indigenous Awards Night

Group image of staff, students, award recipients and alumni from the 2019 UNSW Indigenous Awards Night. Image: Maja Baska

"The aim of the (Indigenous Student) Association is to help all Indigenous students build and foster that sense of community whilst also engaging in that advocacy stream to learn how to use our voices to highlight the good and bad things that may be happening around us.”

Roberts and Fing both agree that Nura Gili plays a vital role in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student’s journey at UNSW.

“Nura Gili provides a safe culturally inclusive environment for Indigenous students. University can be a daunting and intimidating place, so having a space to feel safe and included is important for success,” Roberts says.

“Nura Gili has assisted me in so many ways…I truly am grateful and will never forget the staff and life-long friends I have made.”

UNSW Medical student, Kyall Flakelar joined Roberts as Burbuga Birrung Award recipient for Indigenous Male of the Year.

Other non-faculty recognitions included the Jennifer Marr Young Elite Athlete Award, Shalom College Outstanding Student Award, Shape Connect Award and UNSW Accommodation Award.