Volume 8 Number 7
July 9 - August 13 2012
When Australian man Charles Perkins played in a game of soccer against an Oxford University team in the late 1950s it got him thinking – did he want to attend university himself one day?
It’s not the most radical thought by modern standards, but Charlie Perkins was an Aboriginal man and no member of his race had ever before secured themselves a tertiary education.
Mr Perkins later became the first Indigenous Australian to attend university (graduating in 1966) and then carved out a career as a senior Commonwealth public servant and respected Aboriginal activist.
Half a century later a scholarship program established in his honour is still helping Indigenous people pursue their dreams of affording study at world-class institutions.
In May, University of Melbourne student Lilly Brown, 26, was awarded a Charles Perkins Scholarship and will be one of the first Indigenous Australians to study at Cambridge University in the UK.
“You hear about these places in really abstract terms,” Ms Brown says of Cambridge University.
“Going to university in the first place was a novelty, not really something that happened in my social universe or family.
“I am really proud to be doing this in [Charles Perkins’] name.”
The scholarship is worth about AU$53,000 and will cover living expenses, airfares and tuition fees for up to three years.
Ms Brown is currently completing Honours in Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne, looking at the value of education as a tool to affect positive social change.
Her interests lie in the areas of knowledge production and dissemination, educational policy development, and the link between knowledge and power.
In Cambridge, she will work towards her Master of Philosophy in Politics, Development and Democratic Education at Trinity College, and will then return to Australia and work in Indigenous education.
“Cambridge for me is a way of making my voice stronger,” Ms Brown says.
“What is important is being able to get inside the system and change it a little bit.”
Born and raised in Perth but identifying with the Gumbangerrii nation of the NSW mid-north coast, Brown also boasts Scottish and English heritage.
Ms Brown and two other recipients were presented their scholarship awards by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, the British High Commissioner, Paul Madden, and Charles Perkins’ daughter, Hetti, in May.
Mr Madden told the award ceremony all three recipients had shown exceptional leadership in their academic and personal life.
“They are going to be studying at two of the finest universities in the world. I am sure they will benefit enormously from the experience, which will help them make a great contribution to Australian life in their future careers,” he said.
Ms Perkins also predicted big things for the scholarship winners.
“These amazing, high achieving students will make a great contribution to their chosen fields and will be role models and mentors to the increasing number of Indigenous students pursuing higher education.”
But Lilly Brown warns her success is not yet commonplace among Aboriginal people.
In the same fortnight she was receiving praise from Julia Gillard, police were breaking up Brisbane’s Aboriginal ‘Tent Embassy’ and hundreds of Western Australian officers were lining up against a large group of Aborigines enraged by plans for a new gas hub on sacred land near James Price Point.
“So as much as I am so proud to be able to go to Cambridge there are still really big issues here at home,” she says. “For instance, Aboriginal people are underrepresented at all levels of education.”
In 2010, Paul Gray and Christian Thompson were the inaugural Charles Perkins Scholarship recipients and became the first Indigenous students to study at Oxford University. And last year, Rebecca Richards became the first Australian Indigenous Rhodes Scholar.
The scholarship program is supported by the Australian and British governments, Rio Tinto, the Pratt Foundation, the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust, the Cambridge Australia Trust and The McCusker Foundation.