A group of UOW students and staff and students from Georgian College, Cambria College and Algonquin College in Canada, who are visiting as part of the First Nations Study Tour 2024. Photo: Michael Gray

From virtual reality to bare feet on the land

From virtual reality to bare feet on the land

UOW welcomes Canadian First Nations Study Tour for Indigenous knowledge sharing during NAIDOC week

The University of Wollongong (UOW) on Monday 8 July welcomed a group of 20 Indigenous Canadian students and three academics from Georgian College, Cambrian College and Algonquin College in Canada, who are visiting as part of the First Nations Study Tour. 

The group will tour Wollongong, Sydney, the NSW South Coast and the Daintree Rainforest in Cairns, between 8 July and 21 July, meeting Indigenous Australian students and First Nations experts as they share thousands of years of knowledge and history about Indigenous people.  

The Indigenous Study Tour is part of a larger program of work between UOW and the three Canadian colleges, who have received funding from the Canadian government, to address the barriers to international study facing students from equity backgrounds with a major focus on Indigenous students.   

Months before arriving in Australia the students had the unique experience of visiting UOW’s Woolyungah Indigenous Centre using Virtual Reality (VR). The First Nations Cultural Assets VR, developcaed by VR world leaders Georgian College, is a global mobilisation tool to take Indigenous students around the world without having to physically travel. The project is designed to support and encourage international intercultural learning for students. 

UOW Vice President Indigenous Strategy and Engagement Jaymee Beveridge said UOW is the first Australian university to appear in the VR project and provides an invaluable opportunity to break down barriers for students. 

“It’s the first of its kind in the world and it allowed all 20 Indigenous Canadian students to experience Australia and our beautiful Wollongong campus before they set foot in Australia,” Ms Beveridge said. 

“For many of the Indigenous students who have visited us today this is their first-time leaving Canada. To dive into what the experience would look like through this platform before they left their home country enabled the students to break down any travel angst they may have had.  

“We are grateful to the team at Georgian College for creating this amazing asset with us.” 

Academics from Cambrian College approached Ms Beveridge in 2022 to explore the potential collaboration to better support the globalisation and mobilisation of Indigenous students.

The students were able to virtually visit Woolyungah Indigenous Centre, gather in the Yarning Circle and immerse themselves in educational content about Australia and the campus.

caImage from the First Nations Cultural Assets VR alongside a photo of the study group attending a Welcome to Country Ceremony and Smoking Ceremony in person at Woolyungah. The VR  creation of Woolyungah and the First Nations Study Tour attending Monday's Welcome to Country Ceremony and Smoking Ceremony.  

After 18-months in the making the students were welcomed in person to UOW. Uncle Peter Button and Aunty May Button shared rich Indigenous history, stories and connection to the land with the group during the Welcome to Country Ceremony and Smoking Ceremony, attended by fellow Indigenous Australian students, academics and UOW staff.  

The students walked barefoot through the smoke around the fire pit as the sounds of kookaburra calls, clapsticks and Uncle Peter playing the Yidaki (didgeridoo) filled the yarning circle.  

A fitting start to the tour, as UOW celebrates NAIDOC Week (7 July –14 July). This year’s theme Keep the Fire Burning! Blak, Loud and Proud celebrates the unyielding spirit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, inviting all to stand in solidarity and amplify the voices that have long been silenced. 

Students attend a Welcome Ceremony and Smoking Ceremony at Woolyungah during the First Nations Study Tour. Photo: Michael Gray

UOW Associate Dean (International) Dr Kate Bowles, from the Faculty of the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, has assisted the team securing the opportunity and said VR was an exciting additional resource to “further enhance the educational journey of international students.” 

UOW Senior Lecturer of Indigenous Studies Ash Markstone is leading the cultural program and UOW VR expert Guy Freer is overseeing the VR project. During their time in Australia the students will attend a series of presentations by UOW First Nations experts, from the Faculty of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, covering diverse topics such as history, politics, health, and the justice system. The sessions will provide a nuanced understanding of the challenges and triumphs shaping Indigenous communities in Australia today.

UOW staff and academics and staff from Georgian College, Cambria College and Algonquin College in Canada at Woolyungah. Michael Gray Staff from the First Nations Study Tour. Back row from UOW: Crystal Arnold, Jaymee Beveridge, Ash Markstone, Dr Kate Bowles, Dr David Kampers. Front row: Canadian staff members Bradie Granger, Saskia Paquette, Angelina King.

The tour includes a guided walk of Djeera (Mt Keira), experience Jervis Bay Whale Watching, they will visit the Wollongong Botanic Gardens, attend a Natural dye workshop and tree planting workshop with First Nations experts Crystal Arnold and Stephanie Beaupark. 

Students will discover the world of Indigenous art through visits to exhibitions, connecting with First Nations artists and discover the power of art as a tool for storytelling and activism. They will attend the UOW Pulse launch of the tree burning artwork of Indigenous artist Broc Piazza.   

The tour will extend to Sydney where the group will attend a Bangarra performance and the Rocks Aboriginal Dreaming Tour before heading to Cairns. The group will explore the Daintree, restore the rainforest and complete virtual reality mapping of cultural sites with Jabalbina Rangers and Elders.