A one-time high-school drop-out who made it to university to explore her Indigenous heritage will receive a prestigious scholarship from the Australian prime minister next month to study at Cambridge.
Olivia Slater, an honours graduate of VU’s Indigenous studies’ degree, Bachelor of Arts (Kyinandoo), is one of only three Australians to be awarded this year’s Charlie Perkins Trust Scholarship, named for Australia’s first Indigenous university graduate.
The mother-of-two will begin a Masters degree in Social Anthropology at the esteemed Cambridge University in October, with plans to eventually complete a PhD.
The Yamatji/Nyoongar woman says she had always intended to return to study after leaving her Perth home and school at 15 to start work.
After a brave cross-country move to Sydney, then Melbourne, Olivia picked up a series of Indigenous-related roles at places such as the ABC, the National Archives and Koorie Heritage Trust.
She soon realised Indigenous studies were her passion and found VU’s Kyinandoo degree to be a great fit, despite having a young child and needing to return to the classroom at the age of 28.
“VU’s culture of equitable education allowed me to thrive – I felt there was a place for me.”
As part of her degree, Olivia connected with Melbourne’s western suburbs Aboriginal community, and found a job as Indigenous program producer at Footscray Community Arts Centre. She also travelled to the US to visit with First Nations groups, staying with Hopi and Navajo people, and learning about Native American sites of resistance.
“I came back with my perspective expanded and altered,” she said. “I can’t ignore there’s a much bigger world to explore, particularly global Indigenous communities.”
On another study tour to the UK for Indigenous postgraduate hopefuls, Olivia met staff and students from elite universities including Cambridge, who encouraged her to apply. That was soon followed by her receiving the Charlie Perkins scholarship, which will support her during her Cambridge stay.
Olivia will pursue her research interests at the intersection of anthropology, performance and Indigenous studies at Cambridge, with a future aim to turn a PhD into a book.
“I can’t imagine what my life would look like now if I hadn’t studied at VU – I’d probably still be working and raising my children, waiting for the perfect moment to sidestep into study.”