Professor Atkinson, head of Southern Cross University’s Gnibi College of Indigenous Australian Peoples, was among 26 lecturers honoured this week with awards from the Carrick Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education.
Her $25,000 Neville Bonner Teaching Excellence in Indigenous Education award came as a total surprise, she said.
“While I am honoured, I dedicate this award to the staff and students at Gnibi because they represent who we are and what we do,” Professor Atkinson said. “It also belongs to the many, many Aboriginal people who have supported our work and vision over the years.”
In a double bonus for Southern Cross University, the second recipient of the Neville Bonner award was Phillip Rodgers-Falk, a former Southern Cross law graduate who now teaches at Griffith University.
“The expertise of our University is such that we graduate Indigenous students with a level of excellence that enables them to take high profile places in academia and the workforce and share in an award such as this,” Professor Atkinson said.
Professor Atkinson received her award at a ceremony at Parliament House, Canberra. She plans to spend the money on reviewing the Master of Indigenous Studies (Wellbeing) program and deepening the academic and research elements of the course units.
Asked to nominate the most important elements of her teaching style, Professor Atkinson said she started each new class by challenging students to answer two questions: Who are you? What is your life purpose?
“It is crucial to not only focus on academic teaching, but to also foster the personal development of each student and to help them build up their own personal inner resources and capacity to learn and grow,” Professor Atkinson said.
“We encourage students to become more aware of the multi-layered components that make up their identity across cultures, histories, stories and genealogies.
“In a way our staff acts as ‘accidental’ counsellors, providing a lot of encouragement and support to students whose lives are often deeply challenged once they confront and expose the history of Aboriginal people – a history which is so often inter-woven with their own personal history, especially around the area of abuse and violence.
“As they peel back the layers, they become more and more aware of how the world around them has shaped and formed them and ultimately how they, in turn, can play a key role in shaping and forming that same world.”
Professor Atkinson said that of all the affirming things that have been said of her contribution to Indigenous education, none held more value than the words of Uncle Eric Walker, the most senior Elder of the Bundjalung nation.
Uncle Eric said: “Judy Atkinson speaks the truth. She encourages people to find their roots and gives them hope. They learn they are somebody first. Then they can do something to help their people.”
Professor Atkinson said she had been working comprehensively with the Federal Government for the past 18 months in the hope that they would support a three-state project that would enable Gnibi to undertake work in diverse Aboriginal community situations – through a community educational approach – to facilitate community change.
In particular, she saw this as an effective response to the painful issues of sexual abuse and violence in Aboriginal communities, which have been under the media spotlight recently.
“I firmly believe that education for early childhood development, education for life and education for healing are the only way forward in creating positive, sustainable change in Aboriginal communities,” she said.
The Carrick awards are decided independently of government by an external committee under chairman John Hay, vice-chancellor of the University of Queensland.
Although the teaching awards have a decade’s history, this year they take their richest, most comprehensive form, being part of an expanded $4.5million awards budget.
The Carrick Institute’s director, Richard Johnstone, said he believed there was much better recognition of the significance of the awards and of the way they enhance the reputation not only of individuals and their universities but also of the teaching profession.
He said awards such as these encouraged academics to pursue excellence in teaching, which could only benefit students.
Earlier this year Associate Professor Baden Offord and Associate Professor Alison Specht each received a $10,000 Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning as part of the Carrick Awards program.
Photo: Professor Judy Atkinson.
Media contact: Zoe Satherley Southern Cross University media officer, 6620 3144, 0439 132 095.