Not even a global pandemic is going to keep Olivia Slater – the first Indigenous Australian woman to undertake a PhD at Cambridge University – from her research.

In 2019, along with her family, the Yamatji/Noongar woman and VU Arts alum returned to her hometown of Perth to commence her academic fieldwork. She's meant to be back at Cambridge this year to finish her PhD, but COVID-19 had other ideas.

We caught up with Olivia over the phone to chat about her research on Indigenous and Australian identity, and how she's getting on during the pandemic.

She also shared why cultural events like NAIDOC Week have a huge impact on her and her family, both while in Australia and overseas.

Olivia on keeping her research – and culture – alive

What's it like not being able to go back to Cambridge to complete your research?

In the beginning, I watched Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal scholar friends still in the UK scramble to try and fly back home. They had to get out of leases, collect all of their belongings and still maintain their studying momentum while having to relocate to the other side of the world.

It's like watching a reality TV show that I used to be in, but I've since left!

Are you worried about how you're going to complete your PhD on the other side of the world?

Cambridge University is very traditional with their submission and defending process. Historically you've had to be there in person to submit your thesis and to defend six weeks later. That is shifting a little bit now.

The university is looking at alternative ways to ensure that those processes can still take place and that international PhD students who can't get back are not penalised.

I would still love to go back to submit and defend in person. I couldn't imagine having to sit through a four-hour Zoom submission session!

What does your field research in Australia involve?

I'm working with a Year 10 drama class, through an applied drama program (through Yirra Yaakin Threatre Company) called Moorditj Wirla (Strong Heart), which is about belonging and identity in a broader Australian context. Those main themes are then explored through this program, which is delivered by Aboriginal facilitators.

We create a really open, safe space to talk about bigger things like where you fit in the world, and how to make sense of where you fit, in a place that has layers of colonial settlement within it.

The students then decide, collaboratively, what they want to talk about and build out a play based on some of those issues and concerns and questions that they have around belonging and indentity.

I dropped out of high school in grade 10. So personally it's been really rewarding (and terrifying!) to come back into high school in the same grade that I had one foot in but half my body already out the door.

And fifteen-year-olds are straight up. They unflinchingly tell you about the world - which I really appreciate.

Do culturally significant events change for you while you're in England and back home?

I realised my children were seven and eleven and I hadn't sat down with them and had conversations about Sorry Day, the Stolen Generation and Reconciliation Week. We talk a lot about NAIDOC. We talk a lot about culture just in general.

We hadn't talked about some of those government policies that were so damaging for so many generations. So just seeing it on the calendar we ended up having a big yarn.

I hadn't meant them a disservice, but I had internalised the idea that talking about these kinds of things was for older kids or adults, which is the kind of way of thinking that I grew up with.

I'm 38 now, so I was in school 20 years ago and back then these things were not talked about. It was considered shameful or made invisible.

So we're talking a lot more about it now. And I am letting my gut and my heart lead the way in conversations with my kids and letting them know if there's anything they want to talk to me about they can.

I would love to see more Aboriginal knowledges taught throughout primary and high school. One day those five-year-olds will become teachers, and they'll know that their teaching practice can be easily complemented by local Aboriginal culture and histories.

It's very easily achieved and there is lots of knowledge out there. You just have to know how to look. You just have to have the want.