Alumnus in Focus - Senthorun Raj
13 September 2011
Since graduating last year, Senthorun Raj (BA Honours 2010) has already carved out an impressive career path that far exceeds expectations for a young graduate fresh out of University. His passion for social justice and matters relating to sexuality and politics, were initially encouraged by mentorship given by the academics in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies. This passion ultimately led him to a role as the Senior Policy Advisor for the Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby (NSW) and NSW President of Amnesty International Australia.
Fairly early on in this role, he successfully lobbied parliamentarians for amendments to adoption legislation - ending the last piece of direct legislative discrimination against same-sex couples in NSW. He has also been appointed to a ministerial advisory committee for the NSW Minister for Education and Training, reporting on 'Proud Schools', a pilot program to deal with homophobic bullying in schools. He has been published in a range of peer-reviewed academic journals, and his writings have covered issues relating to refugee law and sexuality; same-sex domestic violence; activism; diaspora and international law; lesbian sadomasochism; youth culture and gender-based violence; marriage and citizenship; and racial vilification and humour. And if all that was impressive enough, he will be a keynote speaker for Amnesty International's 50th Anniversary Human Rights Conference this year.
Much of his professional advocacy work has involved community engagement and development. He has recently facilitated a series of consultations on discrimination in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities, as part of a local government grant relating to the Australian Human Rights framework. These consultations took a deliberate 'intersectional' approach to thinking about social justice, to highlight the complexities of discrimination and disparate individual experiences in the context of law reform.
So unsurprisingly, Senthorun is now finishing his Bachelor of Laws at the University of Sydney, whilst impressively still juggling his work, writing and advocacy commitments. Below he shares his unique journey and passions for driving social change.
A Conversation with Senthorun Raj
What are your happiest memories about your time here as a student?
"I relished the opportunities I had to participate in a range of social and education networks. As an undergraduate, I was so grateful for the mentorship offered by the academics in the Gender and Cultural Studies Department, which ultimately became my major. I was invited to attend the GCS Research Seminar Series, and was exposed to some of the most rich and innovative research in the field I was so passionate about. Rather than limit the educational experience to the classroom, my education was also nurtured in having opportunities to participate in various research seminar programs and the engaged social and intellectual discussions at the weekly Manning Bar drinks. Wine, enthusiastic students and intellectual conversation in the field of cultural studies, what more can a student ask for on a Friday afternoon!"
Who was your favourite Professor whilst you were a student at the University of Sydney and why?
"There are many lecturers who supported me in my academic pursuits. Selecting one is too difficult. However, I would like to make special mentions of Dr. Kane Race, Dr. Jane Park, Dr. Gilbert Caluya and Dr. Clifton Evers who all supported me in various stages of my undergraduate career at the University. All of them were instrumental mentors and I am truly indebted for their ongoing encouragement for both my academic and community work."
What is your proudest achievement?
"There are many things that make me proud. If I were to pick something university-related, my proudest achievement to date was being awarded both the University Medal and the Australian Gay & Lesbian Archives Thesis Prize for my thesis. After spending a year researching sexuality-based asylum claims, and having volunteered as a caseworker in the area, I was truly privileged to have my writing recognised by both the University and the broader academic community."
Tell us more about yourself and how you chose this interesting path to become the Senior Policy Advisor for Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby?
"I have always been inspired to pursue social justice - whether in an academic, professional or voluntary capacity. The impetus for my professional advocacy work on same-sex law reform issues began with my activism with the local Amnesty International Society at the University of Sydney. After becoming involved in local campaign activities at the university, I began work at Amnesty International Australia as a volunteer refugee caseworker.
"From there, I became involved in more advocacy related campaigns, becoming a White Ribbon Ambassador speaking out against gender-based violence, and a lobbying for a Human Rights Act for Australia. In the context of my undergraduate academic work, I began researching in the areas of queer theory, sexuality studies, law and politics. The combination of my voluntary and academic pursuits empowered me to apply for the job with the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, where I have now worked for two years. I am in the extremely fortunate position of being paid to do what I love."
What has been the most memorable success you have had?
"My most memorable success would be lobbying for same-sex couples adoption reform - a campaign that both inspired and challenged me. The late nights, intense lobbying and the constant media work proved tough. However, in the long-term, the elation at having successfully eliminating the last direct piece of discriminatory legislation against same-sex couples in NSW was exceptional. With a conscience vote split of 45-43, the knife-edge margin made the success all the more memorable. In particular, the memories of working with a range of MPs across the spectrum of parties, and being a part of those two weeks of intense and emotive parliamentary debate will remain with me forever."
What is the mantra you live by?
"Always follow your passions. It is easy to be saturated by a world of expectations, doing what you think you ought to do, rather than what drives you or makes you feel happy. For me, my successes have always been driven by my passions, and by having strong networks and communities that will support my endeavours."
What are your plans for the future?
"My various pursuits in life, such as my current job, were never part of my initial plans. When thinking about the future, I think it is important to leave it flexible for opportunities that arise. Sometimes what you least expect or plan for, will bear the most fruitful outcomes. At the moment, I am completing a law degree, and once I finish, would love to explore further international study or work opportunities in both cultural studies and human rights advocacy."
What drives you?
"My passion for building ethical communities and progressive social change drives all my academic, professional and activist work. I believe that knowledge should be shared, and that we should never seek to be complacent about our privileges in life. I am driven by a passion to build cultures and dialogues that value diversity, rather than seek to erase our differences. My privileged education has equipped me with the ability to think critically about the world, and it is this ethic of self-reflexivity that I wish to pursue in the name of social justice."
What advice would you give to students graduating from the University of Sydney?
"You are never too young or too inexperienced to pursue your passion or dream. I was fortunate enough to realise some of my dreams while at university. For me, the challenge was not necessarily in the activity or project I was undertaking; rather, it was about finding the confidence to undertake it in the first place. For all students at university, I say follow every opportunity. As clich'd as it sounds, you never know what you will achieve, and regardless of whether you are successful or not, you will always learn something valuable in the process."
For any enquiries on Alumni of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney, please speak with Kate Macfarlane on the contacts below.
Contact: Kate Macfarlane
Phone: 02 9351 7454