Leila Smith’s Speech at the 2022 Indigenous Scholars International Study Tour Reception

Leila Smith Speech, 12 May 2022

Aurora Indigenous Scholars International Study Tour Reception

Hello everyone. Thank you for joining us here this evening. Thank you, Michael, for your warm welcome, I’d like to pay my respects to the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, their Elders past and present, and to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here tonight from across the many countries and nations that make up this continent.

When I look around the room, I am humbled by the scale of this growing network of Indigenous students, scholars and leaders, and non-Indigenous allies. We come from different walks of life. With different histories, and different goals. But we are all here because we believe in the phenomenal potential of Indigenous students and the importance of setting our sights on the future – on building Indigenous leadership.

Indigenous leadership is not a new idea. We are the oldest living civilisation on earth. We have over 65,000 years of knowledge, cultures and kinship. Our Elders have sustained our people and this continent for Millenia, in ways that are only just now being grasped by Western history and science.

Indigenous leadership is not new, but it is changing.

We’ve had to unravel two centuries of systematic and structural barriers, and a pervasive assumption of deficit. Until the 1970s, teachers in NSW could refuse students from attending school just because they were Aboriginal. 60 years ago, an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person had never graduated from an Australian university. 12 years ago, an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person had never graduated from Oxford or Cambridge. These outcomes were not by choice, but by design.

And yet, here we are tonight – the largest gathering of Aurora alumni we’ve ever had in one place.

We are surrounded by some of Australia’s brightest minds – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, scholars and leaders – and we’ve shattered colonial expectations of what it means to be Indigenous.

Tonight, I am proud.

Tonight, we mark 11 years since Aurora’s first international Study Tour, which has now seen more than 200 Indigenous students build networks of support at some of the world’s best universities, including Harvard and Stanford in the US, and Cambridge and Oxford in the UK.

Over the past 12 years, we’ve seen almost 100 Indigenous scholars studying and teaching at these top universities, critical to this is our partnerships with the Charlie Perkins Scholarship Trust and the Roberta Sykes Indigenous Education Foundation. 94 per cent of applicants that apply from the Aurora Study Tour are accepted at these universities.

Tonight, I am proud and inspired – because I’ll let you in a little known story.

Our Study Tour was born the year after we launched the Charlie Perkins Scholarships, because in 2011, there were no Charlie Perkins Scholars – there were no applicants.

A couple of people confessed to me that maybe this was it. Maybe we had found the only two Charlie Perkins scholars. Maybe we did misjudge it.

Maybe they were right.

But we couldn’t believe that was true. We knew there were other scholars out there. We just needed to show them the universities. We needed to take the students over and show them that it was possible. So in 2011, the Study Tour went overseas for the first time – and here we are, 11 years later, with more than 200 Indigenous students connected with the world’s top universities and a near 100 per cent acceptance rate for those who apply after the Tour.

Our programs wouldn’t have been possible without the perseverance and dedication of Aurora’s alumni, alongside the Charlie Perkins Scholarship Trust, the Perkins Family, and Roberta Sykes Indigenous Education Foundation, the National Indigenous Australians Agency, the Paul Ramsay Foundation and Industry Super Holdings, and, of course, Richard Potok, Aurora’s founder and former CEO.

By believing in the phenomenal potential of Indigenous students and the importance of building Indigenous leadership, we have been able to bridge expectations and possibility, and create some remarkable connections. We’ve connected worlds across countries. We’ve connected Western education and cultural identity. And we’ve connected the most elite universities with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and cultures, showing what it means to return from overseas study and deliver the benefits back home.

There’s a momentum building that’s impossible to ignore. And we’re only just getting started.

We are entering a new era of Indigenous leadership. One where cultural strength, Indigenous education outcomes, and Indigenous sector leadership is one vision, valued by all Australians. Where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders are not only valued, but sought after within the business sector, on the boards of ASX 100 companies, in universities, in government and as members of Parliament.

Building global connections at a post-graduate level is only one part of this. We also have to look here, at home, with our young people.

We might be the oldest living culture, but we are also one of the youngest populations with around one-third under the age of 15. Soon we will see the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population reach one million. This presents a significant opportunity to tap into the potential of Indigenous young people, evolve the education system to encourage stronger Indigenous student outcomes, and strengthen the pipeline of Indigenous leaders.

The potential is there. Our High School Program, which positions academic success alongside Indigenous culture, has doubled Year 12 completion, tripled ATAR attainment and doubled transition to university compared to Indigenous students Australia-wide.

The potential is there, but it is our role – and the role of all Aurora alumni standing in this room tonight – to be the trail-guides for the next generation of Indigenous leaders, and all generations to come. To provide a pathway for progress on Indigenous education and Indigenous leadership.

Just as we learnt from the spirit, courage and cultural values of the trailblazers – our Elders – which include Charlie Perkins and many others in their generation, we need to hold the line for generations to come. We need to confirm what is possible.

The past two years have been challenging. There’s a greater need for connection. A greater need for a collective impact that comes with that connection. But these past six months, people have worked together in ways I’ve never seen before. We are more focused and more determined than ever.

Tonight, I am proud to be in this room full of trailblazers, trail-guides, future leaders and allies. This is a moment worth celebrating.

Thank you for joining us here tonight.