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From campus to Congress

20 March 2017
Students work with the Indigenous community to close the gap

University of Sydney students learn from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through policy-shaping internship. 

Ten students from the University of Sydney are putting their studies into practice and helping create real change, interning at the National Congress of Australia’s First People (Congress). Congress is a representational body which seeks to put the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at the centre of government and policy decisions.

The interns are assigned to different portfolios based on their interests and disciplinary experiences. Kevin Lee, a third-year Bachelor of Arts/ Bachelor of Law student, works in the Economic Prosperity portfolio.

“I’m interested in economic policy, and this involves researching different approaches to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander development. I also talk to people about their experiences, because often there’s a clash between how people experience things and the statistics and numbers that come out of communities.”

 

I think often we go through life thinking that we know what policies work best for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, even though we haven’t been through that lived experience.

For Kevin, this opportunity to learn from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has been invaluable.

“I’ve always had a very strong interest in social justice and particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs,” he says. “But I’m not an Aboriginal person, and I think often we go through life thinking that we know what policies work best for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, even though we haven’t been through that lived experience.”

“That’s something I’ve been very aware of, and I was drawn to Congress by the fact that it offers a unique opportunity to work under the guidance of people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent.”

The internship program is mutually beneficial, according to Congress education policy advisor and former Associate Dean in Education from the University, Gerard Sullivan.

“Congress has had severe funding problems since 2013,” says Gerard.

“Students are helping to perform functions and fill gaps that allow Congress to continue its mission of advocacy on behalf of its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members.”

Sophie Sauerman, a fifth-year Bachelor of Arts/ Bachelor of Law student, has embraced the opportunity to help give Indigenous people a voice while exercising her legal skills.

“My law studies have equipped me with the legal framework necessary to take on the Justice portfolio at Congress,” she says. “Moreover, my cultural studies major has been extremely useful in terms of understanding the impact of colonisation and dispossession on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”

“I think this experience will help me immeasurably in pursuing a career in human rights. I’ve learnt so much at Congress and have developed so many skills, particularly in research, communication and analysis.”

The students are working on a number of high-profile projects, with Kevin preparing a brief for UN Special Rapporteur for the Rights of Indigenous People, and Sophie drafting a submission to the Inquiry into Freedom of Speech.

They hope their work will make a meaningful contribution to closing the gap in health and life expectancies of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

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