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By Alice Lighton
This term sees the first ever Indigenous Australian scholars studying at the University of Oxford.
Paul Gray and Christian Thompson are the first recipients of a new scholarship which funds young leaders in the indigenous Australian community for up to three years of study at Oxford.
“Until now, for Indigenous students, studying at Oxford was an unattainable dream,” said Hetti Perkins, chair of the Charlie Perkins Trust and its scholarship selection panel.
Gray, 26, is doing a DPhil in Experimental Psychology. He was the first Indigenous Australian to graduate with honours in Psychology at Sydney University.
Thompson, 32, pursues a Fine Art DPhil at the Ruskin School of Art. Already a recognized artist, with some of his photographs recently bought by actressCate Blanchett, Christian will spend his time at Oxford studying issues of representation.
“Visibility is a huge issue for our communities,” says Thompson. “Just by getting here we are making a huge statement for our people.”
“The University of Oxford is the perfect site for my particular research project and an amazing hub of global critical discourse concerning my area,” he said.
Oxfordshire has some personal significance for Thompson: his maternal great-great-grandfather is from Bampton, a village about 17 miles west of Oxford.
“I feel so at home and comfortable; people have been so warm and enthusiastic about my research,” he said.
“The pursuit of knowledge is a binding factor and I am really happy to be able to participate and make a contribution through my own field.”
Only about 6 percent of the Indigenous Australians obtain a bachelor or higher degree, compared to 26 percent of all Australians.
“It is incredibly moving and significant that these talented postgraduate students from one of the world’s most deprived and marginalised communities now have the opportunity, through Charlie Perkins, to study at one of the modern world’s oldest centres of learning,” said Elleke Boehmer, an Oxford professor and Charlie Perkins Trust’s board member.
In preparing for the Australian official presentation of the scholarship winners, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma said the scholarships were important to see more Indigenous students excel in academic studies.
Calma said: “To date no Indigenous Australian has studied an undergraduate or postgraduate degree at Oxford in spite of many leaders of developed and developing countries launching their careers there.”
The Charlie Perkins scholarships were launched in 2008 to enable Indigenous Australian students to study at the University of Oxford.
The scholarships are named after Charlie Perkins, who in a football game against University of Oxford was inspired to return to Australia for university studies.
Charlie Perkins was the first Indigenous Australian university graduate and the first Indigenous head of an Australian Government department.