Meet Charlie Perkins Scholar, Dawn Lewis
What was the turning point for you when you realised you wanted to pursue postgraduate study overseas and what impact did the Charlie Perkins scholarship have on this decision?
While undertaking my Honours in historic DNA at UNE, my supervisor, Dr Melanie Filios, and I asked UNE for funding so I could visit specialist ancient DNA laboratories. Although it was a long shot, Vice Chancellor Prof Brigid Heywood created a scholarship for me to visit and learn from multiple ancient DNA labs in the UK. Once I’d visited Prof Greger Larson’s laboratory at the University of Oxford I knew I had to apply.
If I hadn’t known there was at least one scholarship option for study at Oxford I don’t think I would have applied at all. Without that financial support I simply wouldn’t have been able to go. Now that I’ve been at Oxford a while, I feel that having an Indigenous scholarship has helped me feel secure, like there’s still mob nearby even if I’m literally on the opposite side of the world.
As an Indigenous woman how do you think others at Oxford will benefit from your knowledge and lived experience?
The MSc Archaeological Science degree I undertook had a very diverse cohort, but I was the only Australian and certainly the only Aboriginal woman. Fortunately, most people in my class try to be aware of different experiences and listen to others stories so I generally felt comfortable discussing my identity and experience in Australia. I know from our discussions that they’ve taken away new knowledge and of course, I’ve learned from them as well! Unfortunately, I can only express a singular, fair-skinned Woolwonga, perspective so having other Aboriginal and Zenadth Kes people able to share their own experience with the people who either are or will be running international organisations is extremely important.
I think a story that helps highlight why Indigenous people are needed at these institutions was my attempt to explain the skin system to someone who couldn’t get past the word “skin” and thought we were making marriage decisions based on skin colour. These anglicised terms create serious miscommunications in the international sphere when you don’t have mob to clarify.
Aurora focuses on building Indigenous leadership. What does leadership look and feel like to you and have you personally experienced any great examples of Indigenous leadership?
I feel Indigenous leadership for us young people is taking on that big brother/sister role in life. I failed my first year of uni largely because I didn’t understand the academic system. There are expectations and assumed knowledge that you just don’t have when no one in your family has been before. I’m sure this is true for all forms of education you know – if you were sent out bush to find tucker and no-one had taught you what to look for, you’d either starve or poison yourself. For some reason we’ve set up further education (TAFE and uni) to be this hyper-independent learning environment that doesn’t make sense for a lot of people. Young leaders are now breaking down those barriers by helping the next person through.
Our generation has benefited from the last generations fighting tooth and nail to get us into these education systems by providing scholarships and community support. I think that attitude of creating something, that won’t benefit you but will benefit the next generation, has been passed on to young Indigenous people who have created this culture of leadership where everyone gives someone else a boost. I see that Indigenous leadership in just about every young student I meet and I’m proud of that.