Jean Clarke arrived in Australia from England in the 1960s, with no intention of pursuing higher education. Now a Fellow of the University of Wollongong, Jean credits her involvement in women’s groups, TAFE, Aboriginal communities, and the University of Wollongong for leading her to an illustrious career in education. Now she gives back to UOW each year in the form of a scholarship for Indigenous women.
“I began my life in Australia as a wife and a mother. I was employed in jobs working in factories and as a waitress. I didn’t have any professional or academic qualifications, but I was very engaged with the local primary school. It was being involved with the school and the mothers club that we set up the first women’s refuge outside of Sydney,” Jean said.
While Jean was working with the women’s refuge, tertiary education became free under the Whitlam government. As many mature-aged women were encouraged to do at the time, a friend suggested that Jean should apply to the University of Wollongong, which she did despite not expecting it to lead to anything. To her surprise, she was accepted into a teaching degree.
“At that time it was ground breaking that there was a subject called Women in Society. Women’s issues had never been part of the university. In fact, they had a women’s room here as part of the original plans, but it was being used to store academic gowns. A group of women on campus lobbied to get it reinstated.”
Despite successes like this, the university was not always a welcoming path for Jean. She recalled the feedback of her first university essay, the first she’d written since leaving school at a young age. Jean received a mark of 50%, and a comment from a male tutor telling her that she shouldn’t be at university, but at home raising the kids. She didn’t let his “advice” deter her but instead became determined to improve her skills.
While Jean was studying, she continued to work in women’s services until she was offered a full-time position at TAFE in 1981, where she became a senior head teacher working in access and equity programmes. In that position she worked with women in the local community, creating educational opportunities and pathways for them to enter TAFE, university, or employment.
While working at TAFE Jean visited the South Coast where she met Ngarigo and Yuin woman Iris White, who was doing similar access and equity work at TAFE, but with particular focus on Indigenous women. Working together they developed educational programs for women.
“We were also able to guide staff who didn’t have an understanding at that time that women should be allowed into other areas of TAFE other than cooking and sewing.
“Iris was my mentor, and we’re still good friends.”
In 2008 Jean met Jade, a young Aboriginal woman from the far South Coast studying engineering at UOW. Jade lived with Jean and her husband in their home for six months and worked part-time while studying. Jean was shocked by the difficulty Jade was having securing any type of financial assistance from the university, given that Jade was one of the so few women studying engineering at the time. In her time at UOW, Jade did not receive a scholarship.
“I couldn’t believe it, and her story stayed with me. It played on my mind, and I never stopped thinking about it. I couldn’t just keep saying ‘I really care about this’, I had to do something.”
After seeing Jade’s educational journey and difficulties acquiring assistance from the university, Jean created a scholarship for Indigenous women in 2014.
Since 2014 Jean has donated $10 000 each year to a scholarship supporting Indigenous women studying in either the Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health, or the Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences. In earlier years this went to one or two recipients, but in 2020 it was split between five women for the first time. This was in recognition of the additional difficulties facing students with remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Over the years I’ve been inspired by many Aboriginal women as colleagues and friends. And one of my passions is educational pathways for women and I especially wanted to share that passion with Aboriginal women. I’m also delighted with my long association with Woolyungah and its role in supporting women in their personal journeys and educational pathways. It has been a pleasure to be associated with such dedicated staff.
“And I’ve had the opportunity to meet many of the recipients and I feel honoured to share their stories.”