In 2022, we reimagined the University of Wollongong’s graduation ceremonies by connecting them to our rich Indigenous history. Aboriginal ceremonial practices were weaved into graduation customs to create new traditions.
Specifically, Aboriginal culture was embedded into all aspects of graduation, commencing with Aboriginal community members leading the academic procession with a smoking ceremony, singing, and playing the Yidaki, a musical instrument from Arnhem Land. This was followed by a Welcome to Country and the academic procession wearing the Aboriginal flag on their gowns.
Some long-held practices, such as the traditional procession music, were discontinued on advice from UOW’s Indigenous Strategy Unit that they made First Nations staff and students uncomfortable.
Three elements came together to shift our graduation practices: transformational leadership, engagement with community, and fostering trust and collaboration.
Transformational leadership from Vice-Chancellor Professor Patricia Davidson created an environment where inclusive practices are embraced. Professor Davidson and her executive have opened the door to reconciliation at UOW and enabled First Nations staff and the university community to come together and shift practice.
Engagement with the community and discussing the changes with local elders was key to reimagining UOW’s approach to graduation. At the heart of the change was an artwork by Aunty Lorraine Brown and Aunty Narelle Thomas of Coomaditchie United Aboriginal Corporation, which was incorporated in banners, flags, and the graduation booklet.
Fostering trust and collaboration gave staff the courage to question and change practices and take risks. The graduation team placed trust in their First Nations colleagues to guide them away from practices that were tokenistic. The Indigenous Strategy Unit created a safe space for collaboration, where everyone was committed to truth-telling and healing.
A crowd of proud and passionate staff turned up to watch the ceremony each day, creating a sense of community, pride, and connectedness with one staff member commenting “This graduation ceremony made me feel proud to work at UOW". Whilst the embedding of Aboriginal practices into graduation was not embraced by everyone, this illuminated the importance of walking together on the reconciliation journey.