Let’s take a journey. You are an Indigenous student new to RMIT. It’s your first day at a new place. You’ve travelled interstate away from family and friends and your never- live-without, always-by-your side, Ryan Gosling look-alike chihuahua. You plan to study at university to chase your dreams. Where do you go, your head is all over the place? You walk down Bowen street with your shit iPhone headphones blasting Graduation by Vitamin C.
People around you are looking at you awkwardly as you remove your headphones you realise your headphones are not plugged in. After you realise this you are totally embarrassed and run into the nearest building to recover from such an atrocity.
You walk up the few steps and see a beautiful Indigenous designed artwork and a sign that reads ‘Ngarara Willim Centre’. You are intrigued and pick up the handset phone and wait for the person on the other end.
A voice as sweet as a lamington says “Hi, welcome to the Ngarara Willim Centre, I’m Cyan how can I help you?” You mumble into the phone that you’re lost and embarrassed. You tell her you’re scared and it’s your first day and that you’re Aboriginal and ask if this is a safe place. Cyan opens the locked door. You see a casually dressed women with stunning straight brown hair and a beautiful smile on her face. She stands to the side and gestures you to follow her inside. She brings you inside a living room style area and you can smell fresh toast. She then invites you into a private room.
You sit down at the table across from Cyan. She smiles at you and asks you about your mob and where you come from. You smile at her as you realise you have found your place at RMIT. This is what it is like for every Indigenous student on their first day at RMIT. We come from all over Australia and find our way to a place we can call our second home.
This year will mark the Ngarara Willim Centre’s 24th year of running at RMIT. Ngarara Willim was previously called The Koorie Education Unit then renamed the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Unit. Ngarara Willim is one of many Indigenous centres across Australia whose sole purpose is to assist with the university experience for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. “Ngarara Willim means ‘gathering place’ in the language of the Wurundjeri, the traditional custodians of the land where RMIT stands” (Ngarara Willim Centre website).
You’re probably wondering ‘why am I even reading about this?’ Early this year Daily Mail Australia disclosed an incident at the Queensland University of Technology. Non-Indigenous students were asked to leave a computer lab in the Indigenous unit. One student later posted on Facebook “I wonder where the white supremacist computer lab is”. Another student responded with ‘ITT n*****s’. An Indigenous staff member at QUT has launched a $250,000 racism claim after the incident. (Eddie & Noble, 2016).
To understand why Indigenous centres are important I spoke to three key people who have benefited from the Ngarara Willim Centre. Stacey Campton has led the Ngarara Willim Centre to victory for the last 18 months, overseeing RMIT’s first Reconciliation Action Plan. In second command as Stacey’s confidant Carlie Groves is a fierce yet caring non-Indigenous women who has been passionate about Indigenous student wellbeing since the dawn of Y2K. Hollie Johnson has a tough rep as the OG (Original Gangster) of the Ngarara Willim Centre. She made her first footprint in the Ngarara Willim Centre back in 2013. Stacey, Carlie and Hollie come from all walks of life and will give this article a fresh perspective on the value of Indigenous centres in Australia.
When asked why Indigenous centres are important Stacey touched on the rights of the first nations people and the role for centres to close the education gap: “We have a fundamental right as Indigenous people to an education. People like to put us into the category of disadvantage. The Ngarara Willim Centre is a place where professional and academic Indigenous staff and students thrive to break down that wall of disadvantage.”
Ngarara Willim Centre –Indigenous Students find home
Stacey speaks passionately about the fact that Indigenous centres aren’t just a place to socialise and get a few study hours done. She clearly stated that without the existence of Indigenous centres the first nations people of Australia would be lost. She shared her view that having Indigenous centres across universities nation-wide will increase Indigenous curriculum and the number of Indigenous academics. For example, in 2009 RMIT implemented an elective for all students to expand their current knowledge of Aboriginal culture. The majority of students enrolled in this elective are non-Indigenous, which is a positive step towards reconciliation and pleases many of the Indigenous academic staff and students.
As an non-Indigenous woman, when asked if she felt included working in the Ngarara Willim Centre, Carlie said that since day one she has been treated as though she was a member of the Indigenous community. In many people’s eyes she is, due to her 12 years of commitment towards improving education outcomes for Indigenous students. “It’s an honour to be accepted by my colleagues and students at the Ngarara Willim Centre. Never have I felt unwelcome. I am included in everything, especially cultural events. Part of the reason I’ve stayed so long is because of the support.” Carlie manages the Indigenous Tutorial Access Scheme which plays a direct role in retention and graduation results for Indigenous students.
Hollie leads a double life. By day she is a full-time student at RMIT and at night she does part-time modelling. Her long legs prove she is in the right industry. Hollie had to move away from home to study the course of her dreams, away from all her friends and family. For Hollie, the Ngarara Willim Centre has become a second home. She has found a new family in the students she has met: “Being one of those students coming to Melbourne alone, being the first to move away from home to study I wanted to make the effort to get to know people. I didn’t have anywhere else to go, but ended up meeting friends who became like family. The Ngarara Willim Centre has that sense, unlike other Indigenous centres or universities.” – Hollie Johnson
The emotion on Hollie’s face when talking about the community of the Ngarara Willim Centre is heart breaking. Hollie’s voice cracks when talking about how important the Ngarara Willim Centre has been for her and how the centre itself has contributed to the success of completing of her degree. Indigenous people have suffered thousands of years of being forcibly removed from homes, genocide and many more. Indigenous centres such as Ngarara Willim help with the trauma that Indigenous people have faced and are still facing by providing dedicated support. We all deserve to find that place we can call home. For Indigenous people at RMIT, the Ngarara Willim Centre is their sanctuary. It is where they can plan for world domination!
From what Stacey, Carlie and Hollie have told us, it is a huge privilege to have this service at any university. But the sad truth is that many people don’t understand why Indigenous students need these centres. Stacey mentioned that the first nations people of Australia have the right to an education. When you think about the incident at QUT it brings up a lot of questions. Some of these questions are surrounded by the lack of education in understanding Aboriginal history and the fundamentals of Aboriginal culture that non-Indigenous students may have. For example, how important is it to have Reconciliation Action Plans in place? Will having reconciliation action plans help to build respectful relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and create opportunities for Indigenous peoples?
From interviewing Stacey, Carlie and Hollie you can see that the Ngarara Willim Centre has brought people from different backgrounds together and build these relationships that will never be forgotten. In my time at RMIT I have never met a stronger student cohort. The support you receive from the centre impacts not only your studies but your future career but most importantly your life as soon as you leave the centre. You are never forgotten. You are not just a 6-digit student code you are FAMILY.