Roberta was a woman of courage, determination and inexhaustible energy. She participated in immediate, direct action to bring the injustices faced by Indigenous Australians to the attention of the rest of Australia, such as the tent embassy.  Yet she also had the foresight to recognise the importance of expanding educational opportunities to build a future Indigenous leadership. And she did something about it.
Peter Waters
Former Chair of the Roberta Sykes Indigenous Education Foundation

Dr Roberta ‘Bobbi’ Sykes (1943-2010) was a poet and author, a fierce advocate for Indigenous rights in Australia and a courageous ally, who was deeply committed to promoting Indigenous education opportunities through overseas study. She was also the first Black Australian to study at Harvard. Roberta’s legacy of activism, courage and a grassroots commitment to change is evident not only in the Roberta Sykes Scholarships delivered by Aurora to this day, but also in the many moments that defined Roberta’s life.  

Roberta became recognised as an activist in the lead-up to the 1967 Referendum, where she fought for the ‘yes’ vote to change the Constitution so that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would be recognised in the national census. In 1972, Roberta was one of the founders of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns of old Parliament House in Canberra.  

At the same time, Roberta established Black Women’s Action (BWA) alongside Sue Chilli, Marcia Langton and Naomi Myers. The group began by publishing an Aboriginal community newspaper, Koori Bina, which later became AIM (Aboriginal and Islander Message). Over time, BWA broadened its work and funded a number of small enterprises that were established by Aboriginal women.  

In an interview with The John Hopkins University Press, Roberta reflected on how the opportunity to study at Harvard came about. She explained that a Black American professor had visited Australia, and subsequently arranged for Harvard to invite Roberta into the postgraduate program – an invitation Roberta found overwhelming and emotional, because at the time, she did not have a western education.  

It took Roberta three years to gather the courage to go to Harvard. However, with only seven weeks before she was due to depart, the Australian Government pulled its funding for Roberta’s visit. BWA took action and raised the full set of funds in 1979, enabling Roberta to continue as planned. Roberta graduated from Harvard in 1984 with a PhD, making her the first Black Australian to graduate from an American university.  

Upon her return, Roberta became a consultant to government agencies, including the Commonwealth Office of the Aged, the NSW Department of Corrective Services, and those involved in the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. She published nine books, including two anthologies of poetry and the three-volume autobiography. Roberta was then awarded the Australian Human Rights Medal in 1994 for her tireless work in advocating for the civil and political rights of Indigenous Australians. 

Scholarship History

In 1990, BWA changed its name to Black Women’s Action in Education Foundation (BWAEF) to reflect both the change in status as well as its more focused direction. Over the next 15 years, BWAEF encouraged and supported Indigenous students to study in Australia and overseas, raising funds through small donations by individuals and through community fundraising events. In 2008, Roberta changed the name of the BWAEF to the Roberta Sykes Indigenous Education Foundation (RSIEF), which continued Roberta’s legacy through scholarships and bursaries that supported Indigenous students to undertake postgraduate study abroad. Shortly thereafter, Aurora Education Foundation became the administrator for these efforts, supporting the delivery of these scholarships and bursaries. On 14 November 2010, Roberta passed away at 66 years old. 


In 2022, the Roberta Sykes Scholarships became part of the Aurora Education Foundation, with Aurora tasked with continuing Roberta’s legacy of activism, courage and a grassroots commitment to change long into the future.

Image: 2019 Aurora Study Tour participants at Australia House, London.

Learn More

To learn more about the Roberta Sykes Scholarship and how to apply, click below.