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Breaking education barriers for First Nations women

This article appears in: Starting your studies
Aunty Bilawara-lee

Senior Larrakia Elder Aunty Bilawara Lee always wanted to get a university degree, but upon leaving high school in the 1960s as an Aboriginal woman in Australia that seemed an impossibility.

“I guess I didn’t labour on it too much, it was just the way it was at that time,” she says.

It was no good agonising over it. You just had to get on with life and make the best of it.

And she did make the best of it.

Aunty Bilawara, now aged 73, works at Charles Darwin University (CDU) as the Larrakia Academic in-residence within CDU's First Nations Leadership and has written two books: Star dreaming and Healing from the Dilly Bag.


She has plans to write a novel based on her upbringing in Darwin and has completed 10 books in Larrakia language and English to go into schools in the NT.  

Life was not easy in Darwin at the time for Aboriginal women like Aunty Bilawara, but her father instilled into her from a young age the importance of education.

She became a nurse then moved to Canberra in 1987 after her marriage failed to manage the Ngunnawal Centre (Aboriginal Student Support Centre) at the University of Canberra.

She went on to spend 20 years working there and gained a Bachelor of Applied Science in Cultural Heritage.

“I always wanted to get a degree, I am an avid reader and love learning things, so it was a really great moment for me,” she says.

In her current position she is a role model to the younger generation encouraging them to learn so they have the tools to make a difference for themselves, their families, and communities.

“I feel I am an ambassador. I provide a link between the University and the community and give advice on Larrakia culture and how it can be better incorporated,” she says.    

For Aunty Bilawara watching students learn and be transformed by their time at CDU is a highlight of her job.

Aunty Bilawara-lee

“I say it to every group of First Nations people, particularly the young ones, that if you get an education you have a better chance of making something out of yourself,” she says.  

After the difficulties she overcame, Aunty Bilawara is proud to see more women go to university.

“My name in Larrakia means Red tailed Black Cockatoo, which is an Ancestral Spirit Being that brings about change. It is my totem and heart Dreaming. I see my role in life as someone who brings about change, particularly in the health and education sectors,” she says.

It’s positive to see some change, especially from when I was younger, but more can be done.

In recognition of her role in academia and the community Aunty Bilawara is set to receive an Honorary Doctorate from CDU.

And the path she blazed is being followed by other First Nations women.

Rikki Bruce a proud Jawoyn and Waanyi woman was told she didn’t have the math skills to become an engineer, but in 2017 she defied the odds to successfully graduate from CDU with a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering.

At the time she was the sole Indigenous female to graduate CDU in that course.

“It meant a lot to me to graduate, in the sense that I did it and all the hard work and sacrifice paid off,” Rikki says.

“I proved to myself and everyone that Indigenous females are as worthy and accomplished as everyone else.”

CDU engineering and TEP student Rikki on Casuarina campus

Rikki now works as a Rotating Equipment Engineer at the INPEX gas project, working with pumps, turbines and compressors and looks at ways to improve the performance of the equipment.

She is one of only a few females in the engineering team.

“There are not a lot of females but the ones we have are all exceptional women,” Ms Bruce says.  

To me it's normal but I think in the industry and as a nation it's a big deal as it's still rare to find Indigenous female engineers.

For other women trying to get into the engineering field Rikki recommends taking advantage of the help available.

“It made a huge difference for me. We have every right to be there as much as the men so believe in yourself."

With seven out of ten of our students being women, we are proud to connect them to the power of education. Our 100% online, flexible study options empower women to study when and where it suits them, while remaining connected to their lives and communities.

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