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Yaegl Elder Lenore Parker, Elizabeth Smith and family, as well as local Elders from Grafton spent a few days with the international students. Image: Barbara Winters

University of Sydney students visit the Clarence Valley to help address housing issues

18 University of Sydney students, who were so lucky to get a placement in the ‘Service Learning in Indigenous Communities’ (SLIC) program, have been touring around the Clarence Valley and beyond last week from their base at Lake Ainsworth. One of the international students performed at the Koorioboree Festival in Grafton with local artists on the weekend.

Groups of students were hosted by various local Aboriginal organisations and heard from many Traditional Owners to gain cultural insights into community-led housing solutions. The students came from places as far as India, the Netherlands, Ecuador, the USA and China to study in Sydney for one or more semesters.

The SLIC academic coordinator, Suzanne Kenney explained: “In this program, students from different degree programs use action learning approaches and focus on listening to what local Aboriginal people say about their issues and how to address them.”

To learn ‘about the community with the community’, the three groups visited Bundjalung Country (from Alstonville to the Tweed), Arakwal Country (at Byron Bay,) and Bundjalung, Gumbaynggirr and Yaegl Country in the Clarence Valley. They were welcomed to the Lower Clarence region by Yaegl Elder Aunty Lenore Parker.

The students made great new connections and could not get over how beautiful the Northern Rivers Region is. They also saw first-hand how the recent series of natural disasters have turned housing shortages into housing crises, especially for Aboriginal communities. One of the Dutch architecture students, Dominique Van Bijsterveld, said that she had gained new perspectives on flood-proofing homes and was keen to learn more.

Study tour

The students are studying a range of disciplines including public health, gender and media studies, architecture, urban planning, commerce, law and science. After the trip, they are tasked with preparing presentations for the Aboriginal communities they met with, before incorporating the stories and ideas they heard into a final report for assessment. 

“The report they write will be owned by the community,” their local guide, Jacob Hegedus, explained over breakfast with Elders in Yamba on Thursday, September 21. Mr Hegedus is working for Sydney University whilst undertaking his post graduate studies and assisting North Coast Aboriginal Development Alliance (NCADA) with the housing needs assessment. 

The students were also briefed on the situation of the community of Cabbage Tree Island, after all residents were displaced by the February 2022 floods. After five generations, the small Aboriginal community was told this month that they cannot rebuild, which came as a real blow and is causing angst. Since the floods, they have been living in temporary pod accommodation in Wardell, and many hoped that they would be able to return home to the island soon.

New friendships

Their visit to the North Coast NSW ends on September 27 when they return to Sydney and begin working diligently on their report. The bond they now feel with the region as a result of coming and listening is an important incentive for them to do their best.

They will be returning to Sydney with many beautiful memories as well as new friendships with people of the region and with each other that have changed their lives.

More about the program

NCADA and its many member organisations recognise that housing is critically important to the health and wellbeing of families. This year, NCADA has asked the SLIC Program to support them in finding and promoting innovative solutions to the many complex issues governing funding, housing stock and maintenance among key stakeholders at regional and local levels.

This project builds upon a SLIC-NCADA partnership project in which students conducted interviews with Aboriginal service providers and NCADA partners working across housing, youth and women’s wellbeing and services to small communities in the region.

Barbara Winters