Indigenous student wins international scholarshipPublished 28 March 2006
The academic kudos she is enjoying today is a far cry from the alternative hippy lifestyle of her late teens, when she ran away to chain herself to trees in the NSW Far North Coast Terania Creek rainforest protests.
It is also an ocean away from the daredevil young woman who, with a wish for adventure, sailed off in a catamaran to South East Asia a perilous voyage that saw the crew helping Vietnamese and Cambodian boat refugees and outrunning pirates in cyclonic conditions in the Malacca Straits.
Samia only began her university education as a mature age student in 1995 when she was 35.
Today, at 46, the Southern Cross University (SCU) scholar, completing her PhD in Indigenous trauma and grief, has become one of the few Fulbright Scholarship recipients from an Australian regional university and the first ever from SCU.
The coveted and highly esteemed Fulbright scholarships are reserved for the cream of the world's scholars and researchers. Only 20 are awarded annually across the whole nation and it is a very competitive field.
Being an Indigenous Australian woman brings further significance to her selection as the recipient of the Fulbright Postgraduate Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Award, sponsored by the Federal Government's Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination.
Does she see herself as a role model for Indigenous women?
"Well, yes, hopefully, but I would also like to think I was a role model for mature women of all cultural and economic backgrounds," the Northern Rivers scholar said.
Samia's rise to academic prominence was not a pathway she envisioned in her youth.
Growing up in Canberra in a Christian working class family with much-loved adoptive parents (both of whom have recently passed away) she became involved with supporting anti-nuclear rallies and the work of the Aboriginal tent embassy.
Her parents both worked for charities and, like her Bundjalung birth mother, had in different ways themselves been through many hardships and suffered the grief of trauma and separation.
"All these things really impacted my world view and I was highly aware of how people suffered and struggled," Samia said.
At 16 she left school, which she hated, to join the North Coast's counter-culture movement of the 1970s and her involvement with local save the rainforest campaigns saw her risking arrest to save old growth forest trees.
Later, with a group of friends seeking ways to make a modest living, she helped begin the Eumundi markets, now one of the biggest community markets in Australia.
Falling in love with a sailor, she took off on an open-ended ocean adventure. Samia and the crew were lucky to escape with their lives after weeks adrift on a damaged boat in cyclone season in the South China Sea.
"The boat was leaking badly and we were exhausted from constant bailing," she said.
"We ran into a lot of refugees escaping in boats from Vietnam and Cambodia in the Malacca Straits and helped them with water and food, even though we were on rations ourself," she recalled. "Later in the journey we were also attacked by pirates but by some miracle we got the engine going and managed to outrun them."
The couple then lived on the smell of the proverbial oily rag, on a remote island off the coast of what was then Borneo ("no power, water, roads, shops, transport or anything remotely from the developed world").
They sold the boat in Sri Lanka and travelled overland to Northern India, Nepal and the border of China.
A bout of serious illness saw Samia return to Australia where she got a job 'cheffing' in Noosa before the wanderlust hit again.
This time she headed to the US where she found a spiritual connection in New Mexico, working as a volunteer at the world renowned Lama Foundation.
She started in the kitchen on her first visit and worked her way up to international program co-ordinator for the extensive summer school program when she returned for her second US volunteering stay.
There, perched at 8,000 feet above the Rio Grande, surrounded by old growth forest and the majestic Rio Grande Mountains, she was exposed to everything from permaculture and Buddhism to Jungian psychology, art and wilderness studies.
"It was a rich cultural and academic learning experience," she said.
Samia made a close connection with the local Indigenous Pueblo Indians and realised the similarity of their history to that of her own Indigenous people.
"We have both suffered grief and trauma over many generations and on many levels," she said. "We still struggle with the effect of these experiences today."
Returning back to Australia aged 35, she was determined to go to university.
"At this time I was inspired to make a difference in the world. Specifically, I wanted to work with young people in an area that was socially involved and relevant," she said.
Based on her personal and professional experience, Samia was able to enrol in the University of Western Sydney's Graduate Diploma in Social Ecology and was merit listed. From there she went on to do her Masters in Applied Science (Social Ecology) and was also Student of the Year in the Diploma of Sexual Health Counselling course.
During her studies she has worked in areas as diverse as young women's health at Gympie Youth Service, teaching within the Youth Work and Community Welfare Diplomas at Wollongong and Shellharbour TAFE colleges and as a health educator with a focus in Aboriginal Health, specifically in the areas of drug and alcohol prevention, HIV/AIDS and infectious diseases, sexual health and community development with the Illawarra Area Health Service (IAHS).
With her team at IAHS she helped develop innovative programs for the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Community Services (DOCS), targeting Indigenous youth. One such program was called 'Creating Healthy Cultures' recognised with an Illawarra Health Service Consumer Practice Award.
"We worked with the kids in difficult situations and environments and supported and mentored them to help create better lifestyle choices through developing new skills and networks," she said.
"This was a whole community approach and I would be remiss not to mention my own mentors, such as Aboriginal Elders like Iris McLeod, Mary Davis and Faye Allen, who all inspired me and supported me and were the people who really served the community for 20-30 years when times for Aboriginal people were really tough."
An academic position at Wollongong University - where she lectured in Indigenous Health and helped develop curriculum for their post graduate degree - followed a year of travel around Australia.
Along the way Samia has somehow found time to study natural medicine and healing, Aikido, a Japanese martial art (in which she is a Black belt teacher), ecumenical theology and she has recently embarked on becoming a film maker and digital story teller.
"My passion is in the area of understanding grief and trauma, specifically within Indigenous lives and trying to find ways to help myself and others lead happier and healthier lives and live our full potential as human beings," Samia said.
"I wanted to do my PhD in this area and I wanted to do it at an Indigenous college.
"I knew there was no better place in the world to study than at the Gnibi College of Indigenous Australian People and besides, it's located in the most beautiful part of Australia, so I was thrilled to be accepted there."
Samia's PhD, Stories of Hope and Resilience, is a narrative exploration of recovery from inter-generational trauma both in Australian and US Indigenous communities.
The research will explore projects that creatively engage people communally and individually in the direction of resilience, renewal and recovery.
It will be supervised by SCU Prof Judy Atkinson, Professor of Indigenous Australian Studies, Gnibi College of Indigenous Australian Peoples, Associate Dean, Innovation and Development, Faculty of Health and Applied Science.
"From some of my earliest experiences I developed a determination to make a difference in my community and to model resilience and recovery in the face of trauma," Samia said.
"Many people in the Aboriginal community have experienced disadvantage and removal from culture. Alongside many other people in our community, I am dedicated to improving wellbeing in all areas of Aboriginal life and hopefully giving to others some of the gifts of caring and love that have been given to me in my own journey.
"I am well aware of the similarities the world's Indigenous peoples face at this time and the contribution we can make to true reconciliation and social wellbeing. The journey of healing leads to great compassion.
"I also believe finding ways to address trauma and grief is of value for all people, especially as human beings everywhere face trauma, suffering, and loss.
"I aim to make a lasting contribution."