Aunty Joyce Donovan is smiling and standing in front of a UOW media wall wearing a graduation gown and cap. Photo: Andy Zakeli

Dr Aunty Joyce Donovan recognised for immense contribution to university and community

Dr Aunty Joyce Donovan recognised for immense contribution to university and community

Beloved Elder and social justice advocate receives Honorary Doctorate

Dr Aunty Joyce Donovan has experienced more ups and downs, and taken on more challenges, in her lifetime than most others.  

Born at Yarra Bay, just up the road from the Aboriginal Mission at La Perouse in Sydney, Aunty Joyce found it difficult to imagine a future beyond her circumstances. With no formal education and no opportunities, she would have considered herself lucky to work in the local laundry.  

But nearly eight decades later, Aunty Joyce is a renowned Wodi Wodi and Dharawal Elder, a loving mother, grandmother, and great grandmother, a strong social justice advocate, a nurse and health worker, a trauma counsellor, and a shoulder to cry on for her family, her friends, and her extended community.  

It is a long way from the life she imagined for herself as a young girl, but for Aunty Joyce, it captures the principle that has guided her throughout much of her life: “Education is healing.” 

Today, Wednesday 1 November, Aunty Joyce cemented her connection with the University of Wollongong (UOW), where she has become a valuable community connection for Woolyungah Indigenous Centre and a respected Cultural Knowledge Holder and Mentor, with a Doctor of Letters, honoris causa. She was presented with the Honorary Doctorate by UOW Deputy Chancellor Robert Ryan at the Faculty of the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities graduation ceremony, for her outstanding service to the University and her tireless commitment to social justice and human rights.  

Dr Aunty Joyce, as she can now be known, says she burst into tears when she was told the news, but is utterly delighted with the honour. At the same time, she displayed her humility.  

“Knowledge is power,” she says. “Education is the key to the future. I could not have wished for a better thing.” 

Aunty Joyce spent her much of her early years living in a tent at Coomaditchie Mission, near Port Kembla. For a time, she was removed from her family and taken to Parramatta Girls Industrial School, where she later found written reports that described her as “coloured and not too bright”. These words have stayed with Aunty Joyce throughout her life; she has carried them with her throughout her educational journeys, motivated by a desire to shrug off this label and prove them wrong.  

In 1983, Aunty Joyce was the driving force behind the establishment of the Aboriginal Medical Service at Coomaditchie. Once a week, a doctor from Nowra would attend to the service, which was then operating out of a tent. Aunty Joyce’s job was to light the fire each Friday and heat the water so the doctor could wash his hands. She would stay late into the evening to ensure the doctor had warm water for each and every patient. 

Aunty Joyce Donovan delivers the Occasional Address during the graduation ceremony. She stands behind a podium. Photo: Andy Zakeli

Dr Aunty Joyce Donovan speaks at the graduation ceremony.

Aunty Joyce says she was happy with her role, but it was unpaid, and with her first grandchildren due to arrive, she realised she needed to make money to be able to feed her family. Through the Aboriginal employment scheme, then known as NESA, Aunty Joyce was placed in a job with then Federal MP Colin Hollis, based at Dapto, where she worked as Secretary to his Assistant and, at night, went to typing school.  

“I wanted to leave that job with skills that I could take with me,” Aunty Joyce said. “Before that, all I had expected to achieve was to work in the laundry at Prince Henry Hospital near La Perouse and even though I applied for that job, I was rejected. I was meant to work for Colin for six months, but it was extended to 12, and I met so many interesting people during that time.”  

From there, Aunty Joyce became unstoppable. Her experience with the Aboriginal Medical Service gave her a passion for health care, and she decided to train as an enrolled nurse in 1992. This qualification complemented the Diploma in Aboriginal Studies and Health Sciences that she had gained from Cumberland College in 1989. Over the next 30 years, she would use the knowledge, skills and compassion she gained to work tirelessly on Aboriginal health related matters. Her aim, Aunty Joyce said, was to break down barriers in the health system.  

“I look back on my time as a nurse with a lot of love,” said Aunty Joyce, who at the time of her nursing studies was also caring for her growing family. “I gave it all I had. That is the only way to do anything, by giving it your all. I am so proud to call myself a nurse.”  

Built on the foundation of her nursing and passion for health care, Aunty Joyce has devoted an immense amount of time to unravelling the trauma and grief that permeates Indigenous communities.  

One tangent of this is removing the taboo of childhood sexual abuse, for which she has become, in her words, ‘a strong advocate’. Aunty Joyce attempted to address issues of sexual abuse in her role as the Aboriginal Health Education Officer for the Illawarra, however she repeatedly ran into roadblocks. But she felt so strongly about the issue that she travelled all over the state to gain support for marches against child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities.  

Aunty Joyce travelled thousands of miles conducting healing ceremonies for victims and spread her message that it takes a whole community to raise a child. 

In 2008, she was recognised as an Australian of the Year, NSW Local Hero, for her work on child abuse and her contribution to the Aboriginal health sector.  

Going hand in hand with her work in child sexual abuse, Aunty Joyce established a program called Narinya Grief and Trauma Healing, which has since been implemented across NSW. While it does not focus solely on abuse, Aunty Joyce said it enables Indigenous communities to work on healing. The program focuses on creating transformative change around the ways Indigenous communities identify, manage and practice self-care when addressing traumatic grief. In 2007, her work in this field was recognised with a Reconciliation Human Rights Award from the University of Technology Sydney.  

“For Indigenous people, death is everywhere. I am the only survivor of my family of eight,” she said. “But if we don’t heal, that trauma can lead us down a very dark path. That can be drink or drugs or other dark things. I am very lucky that I was a workaholic, so I never went down those paths.  

“We need to talk about grief and trauma and bring them out in the open. We need to be wary about what’s inside a person. Everything I do with healing is for my communities, for all the ones who never made it through.” 

UOW Deputy Chancellor Robert Ryan, Dr Aunty Joyce Donovan, and UOW Vice-Chancellor Professor Patricia Davidson stand together in front of a UOW wall. Photo: Andy Zakeli UOW Deputy Chancellor Robert Ryan, Dr Aunty Joyce Donovan, and UOW Vice-Chancellor Professor Patricia M Davidson.

Aunty Joyce, who also holds a double degree Bachelor of Arts in Adult Education and Community Management from the University of Technology Sydney, said education has been fundamental to helping her overcome her own grief and trauma.  

“Education can mean life or death,” said Aunty Joyce. “If you don’t have education or the skills for employment, you are not able to feed your family and that can lead you to make bad decisions. Healing and education go together. Knowledge is power and education is the key to the future.”  

Over the years, Aunty Joyce has forged a strong relationship with Woolyungah Indigenous Centre at UOW. She has performed countless Welcome to Country as well as cleansing and smoking ceremonies, provided cultural support in academia, ran cultural sessions at Woolyungah, and always made the time and the space to provide support and guidance to Indigenous students. In the past few years, her work has encompassed a greater focus on LGBTQI+ issues; she has worked with UOW’s Ally Network and hopes to do more in the years to come.   

Jaymee Beveridge, UOW’s Vice-President Indigenous Strategy and Engagement, nominated Aunty Joyce for the honour and paid tribute to her incredible strength.  

“As a healer and pillar of strength to women, children and young Indigenous people, who have suffered domestic violence, sexual assault, and trauma, Aunty Joyce’s contribution to the University and to her community is significant and so valuable,” Ms Beveridge said.  

When UOW reimagined its graduation ceremonies in 2022, to bring together traditional graduation elements with a greater focus on Indigenous history, knowledge and Country, Aunty Joyce was central to this process. She helped to embed cultural practices into graduation and ensured that her contributions were targeted at graduating students and their career paths.  

Aunty Joyce is proud of the work she has undertaken and the connection she has created with UOW. She was joined by her extended family in celebrating her Honorary Doctorate and said she was so proud of the message it would send to all.  

Despite being in her lates 70s, Aunty Joyce remains as passionate as ever about the joy and importance of education and the work she has devoted to which she has devoted her life.  

“Age is no barrier. With the time I have left, I want to keep being a strong advocate for the health of my community, to empower women and children, to help with grief and trauma, and to focus on equal rights for trans and same sex couples,” Aunty Joyce said.  

“Life is about learning, and I am still hungry for education.”