Sunday, 22 January at 3.00pm
I begin by acknowledging that we are meeting on lands that are part of the traditional country of the people of the Nyoongar nation. In doing so, I pay my respects to Nyoongar Elders, past and present, including the wonderful Dr Noel Nannup who delivered the Welcome to Country a little earlier in this ceremony and who is Kurongkurl Katitjin’s Elder in Residence and ECU’s Cultural Ambassador.
Right up front, I want to also offer my heartfelt congratulations to you, our graduands. In congratulating you, I want to acknowledge what has undoubtedly been an interesting journey for you all – not one that’s been all plain sailing for you, or, I’m guessing, at least on occasion, for your family and friends. But you’ve done it – and in doing so, have done yourselves and others proud.
Now, I have an admission to make. You see, I struggled in my preparations for this address – what messages I wanted to share and how to do that in a way that didn’t bore the socks off you or my colleagues here – but is relevant, interesting and even a little entertaining. I agonised over that old question of what it is that I have to offer that is different. Thankfully, as you will well know by now, ECU is a university that values not only excellence, but difference as well.
And, the main point of difference for me is my Aboriginality and the cultural elements encompassed in that. You see, we, ECU – like every university in this country – have collectively struggled to attract and retain Indigenous Australian students – to convince them that university is a viable option for them, that what we teach, and what they learn, at university will add value to their lives, change their life circumstances, if you will.
Indigenous Australians are not the only people we have to convince in that regard – many of you, for instance, will be the first in your families to have achieved a university qualification. The reasons for this will be many and varied from access to aspiration to expense to expectation to a range of others. One of my favourite sayings, adapted for today’s purpose, is:
It’s hard to be, what you cannot see.
Now, I did say I wanted to interweave some Aboriginal cultural aspects into this contribution to today’s proceedings so I want to tell you a little about Nyoongar country as it links to my key messages. Very briefly, Noongar country is a bio-diversity hot-spot with over 8,000 life forms that are rare and more than 6,000 of those being unique to Nyoongar country. We are fresh-water people and most of us have birds as our totems. This is the link to the two analogies I want to use today, both of which use birds to highlight their meaning.
My first analogy is that of the black swan. ‘Black Swan’ is a term used to describe the random events that underlie our lives. Their impact is huge and they’re nearly impossible to predict. The analogy refers to a time in Britain before the British came to Australia. You see, at that time, the only colour swan known was white. Not only was it known ‘beyond all doubt’ through empirical evidence, it was predictable, expected and explainable – to such a degree in fact, that it became central to an old saying about improbability, that is, the most improbable thing one could imagine would be that one would sight a black swan rather than one that was white. British arrival in Australia turned that on its head – here the swans are black, here things are different, here we embrace and celebrate difference and if we are the first – for instance, the first in our families to achieve at university – then we need to strive to ensure we’re not the last.
When I started my first university qualification, here at ECU, albeit in its predecessor Teachers’ College form, I studied at the Mount Lawley campus. I was in first year at the time we had second and third year students but did not have any graduates! We also had only one building, no ref, certainly no option about cafes, no sporting facilities and very few other resources, other than a single sandwich machine that was filled once daily and always seemed to hold sandwiches that were soggy no matter the time of day! I was the only Aboriginal student in my year and one of only two across the three years. They were days when specific student support was unheard of – and when the case of equal pay for equal work was only just being applied to teachers so that women teachers would finally be paid on par with our male counterparts.
Most of my classmates were the first in their families to attain tertiary qualifications – in fact I was the only one who, upon graduation, had not already surpassed the education levels of both my parents!
I considered myself fortunate in that regard. You see, both my parents were teachers, my Dad being the state’s first Aboriginal teacher and ECU’s first Indigenous Australian graduate. Education was in our blood – going to school and then going to university was what we expected to do for and of ourselves. It is not so for too many others.
ECU has a proud history in this area and last year we decided to see to what extent – we researched ECU’s Indigenous Alumni. It took a lot of years before university was seen to be an option for Aboriginal people. In the 20 years after Dad’s 1951 graduation, he was joined by only another seven Aboriginal graduates and in the 10 years after that a further 15. Happily, things then really changed, not only in terms of numbers but also the variety of study disciplines. We now have Indigenous Australian students in their hundreds and in all parts of the University. To the end of 2010, we have more than 500 Indigenous Australian graduates who achieved at teacher qualification or Associate Degree or above – there are a further 150 plus with VET-level qualifications.
Each one of these more than 650 Indigenous Australian members of ECU’s alumni is a high achiever, in their own right as well as within their family and their community. They are, in many regards – and in both literal and metaphorical senses – true black swans!
You may be the first in your family or you may be adding to a family history – either way, your achievements should not be under-estimated.
And, in keeping with the ‘birds’ theme of my messages, my second analogy – it’s about geese and what we can learn from them as we go through our lives. I apologise in advance that this part takes a ‘lessons’ format. I know you may have been breathing a sigh of relief thinking that all such things were over and done with – at least for a while – but then again, I’m a believer that life is about learning......
So, based on the work of Milton Olson:
FACT 1: As each goose flaps its wings it creates an ‘uplift’ for the birds that follow. By flying in a “V” formation, the whole flock adds 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew alone.
Lesson: People who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going quicker and easier because they are travelling on the momentum and lift of one another.
FACT 2: When a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of flying alone. It quickly moves back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird immediately in front of it.
Lesson: If we have as much sense as a goose, we stay in formation with those headed where we want to go. We are willing to accept their help and give our help to others.
FACT 3: When the lead goose tires, it rotates back into formation and another goose flies to the point position.
Lesson: It pays to take turns doing the hard tasks and sharing leadership. As with geese, people are interdependent on each other’s skills, capabilities and unique arrangements of gifts, talents or resources.
FACT 4: The geese flying in formation honk to encourage those up front to keep up their speed.
Lesson: We need to make sure whatever noise we make is encouraging. In groups where there is encouragement, the production is much greater. The power of encouragement (to stand by one’s heart or core values and encourage the heart and core of others) is the quality of contribution we seek.
FACT 5: When a goose gets sick, wounded or shot down, two geese drop out of formation and follow it to help and protect it. They stay with it until it dies or is able to fly again. Then, they launch out with another formation or catch up with the flock.
Lesson: If we have as much sense as geese, we will stand by each other in difficult times as well as when we are strong.
I encourage you to stay connected – to each other and to ECU. I welcome you as colleagues to our Alumni. I also encourage you to continue to live the ECU values of integrity, respect, rational inquiry and personal excellence. You’ve lived these over the course of your study and your application of them beyond will hold you in good stead no matter the path you choose from today.
I feel privileged to have shared in the recognition and celebration of your achievements – I wish you well and I congratulate you again. Thankyou.