From virtual reality to bare feet on the land  

A smoking ceremony welcomed the students to UOW.

The University of Wollongong (UOW) began this week welcoming a group of 20 Indigenous Canadian students and three academics from Georgian CollegeCambria College and Algonquin College in Canada, who are visiting as part of the First Nations Study Tour. 

The group will tour Wollongong, Sydney, the NSW South Coast and the Daintree Rainforest in Cairns, between 8 July and 21 July, meeting Indigenous Australian students and First Nations experts as they share thousands of years of knowledge and history about Indigenous people.  

The Indigenous Study Tour is part of a larger program of work between UOW and the three Canadian colleges that have received funding from the Canadian government to address the barriers to international study facing students from equity backgrounds, with a major focus on Indigenous students.   

In the months leading up to their arrival in Australia, the students had the unique experience of visiting UOW’s Woolyungah Indigenous Centre using Virtual Reality (VR). The First Nations Cultural Assets VR, developed by VR world leaders Georgian College, is a global mobilisation tool to take Indigenous students around the world without having to physically travel. The project is designed to support and encourage international intercultural learning for students. 

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Australia-first involvement in VR project

UOW Vice President Indigenous Strategy and Engagement Jaymee Beveridge says UOW is the first Australian university to appear in the VR project and provides an invaluable opportunity to break down barriers for students. 

“It’s the first of its kind in the world and it allowed all 20 Indigenous Canadian students to experience Australia and our beautiful Wollongong campus before they set foot in Australia,” Beveridge says 

Academics from Cambrian College approached Beveridge in 2022 to explore the potential collaboration to better support the globalisation and mobilisation of Indigenous students. 

The students were able to virtually visit Woolyungah Indigenous Centre, gather in the Yarning Circle and immerse themselves in educational content about Australia and the campus.  

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After 18 months in the making, the students were welcomed in person to UOW – a fitting start for NAIDOC Week (7-14 July) celebrations. Uncle Peter Button and Aunty May Button shared rich Indigenous history, stories and connection to the land with the group during the Welcome to Country Ceremony and Smoking Ceremony, attended by fellow Indigenous Australian students, academics and UOW staff.  

The students walked barefoot through the smoke around the fire pit as the sounds of kookaburra calls, clapsticks and Uncle Peter playing the Yidaki (didgeridoo) filled the yarning circle.  

This year’s NAIDOC Week theme, Keep the Fire Burning! Blak, Loud and Proud, celebrates the unyielding spirit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, inviting all to stand in solidarity and amplify the voices that have long been silenced. 

UOW Associate Dean (International) Dr Kate Bowles, from the Faculty of the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, has assisted the team securing the opportunity and says VR was an exciting additional resource to “further enhance the educational journey of international students.” 

For many of the Indigenous students visiting UOW, it was their first time leaving Canada.

Exploring challenges facing Indigenous Australian communities today

UOW Senior Lecturer of Indigenous Studies Ash Markstone is leading the cultural program and UOW VR expert Guy Freer is overseeing the VR project. During their time in Australia, the students will attend a series of presentations by UOW First Nations experts, from the Faculty of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, covering diverse topics such as history, politics, health, and the justice system. The sessions aim to provide a nuanced understanding of the challenges and triumphs shaping Indigenous communities in Australia today. 

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Students will discover the world of Indigenous art through visits to exhibitions, connecting with First Nations artists and discover the power of art as a tool for storytelling and activism. They will also attend the UOW Pulse launch of the tree burning artwork of Indigenous artist Broc Piazza.   

“For many of the Indigenous students who have visited us today this is their first-time leaving Canada. To dive into what the experience would look like through this platform before they left their home country enabled the students to break down any travel angst they may have had,” Beveridge says.

“We are grateful to the team at Georgian College for creating this amazing asset with us.” 

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