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InPsych 2011 | Vol 33

Psychology in current issues

Oxford University educates its first Aboriginal psychology student

Paul Gray, a member of the Australian Indigenous Psychologists Association (AIPA), is one of two inaugural recipients of the Charlie Perkins Scholarship, which funds postgraduate study at Oxford University for those of Aboriginal descent. The scholarship is named in honour of Charlie Perkins, who it is reported was playing soccer professionally in the UK when he was inspired to return to Australia to undertake university study after competing in a game against Oxford University. Charlie Perkins was the first Indigenous Australian to graduate from university, the first Indigenous head of an Australian Government department, and a renowned activist for his people. Paul, a 27-year-old Wiradjuri man from the Bogan River in NSW, is undertaking a PhD in experimental psychology as an Oxford Charlie Perkins Scholar. InPsych caught up with him on his recent trip home to Australia.

What aspect of experimental psychology are you studying at Oxford? Can you describe your research project?
My research focuses on the impact of early traumatic experiences on later cognitive, affective and social processes of children in out-of-home care. After finishing my undergraduate degree I worked for Community Services in NSW supporting children in out-of-home care and their carers, and it was there that I was really encouraged to pursue postgraduate study. It was important to me that my research would benefit the children and young people in out-of-home care, and so I designed my study to be completed here despite being at Oxford University.

The research project I am hoping to complete is quite broad. A main aspect of this study is trying to understand how different maltreatment backgrounds influence the developmental trajectories of children’s cognitive, affective and social processes. We are looking at the relationship between threat-related attention bias and anxiety, as well as the role of attentional control in this relationship. Further, we are looking at social relationships and conditioned avoidance of children in care, as well as the development of theory of mind understanding. We are also exploring risk-taking behaviours, response to interpersonal rewards, and how different attitudes and attributions predict outcomes within this population.

How did you become interested in this area of psychology?
My parents became foster carers when my brothers and I started at university, and so I had some experience of both the challenges faced by young people in care, but also the resilience they display. I started a cadetship with Community Services while I was still at university, and I haven’t looked back since.

Where are you hoping your Oxford studies will take you?
To be honest, I hope my studies bring me straight back home. I’m enjoying the opportunity to live overseas and experience Oxford and that part of the world, but I’m committed to this field and determined to continue working to improve outcomes for children and families. I’m hoping my research and my experiences at Oxford will equip me to make a difference in this area, not only with individual children and families, but also influencing the way the broader systems work with children and families.

What was the appeal of studying at Oxford?
Oxford has such an amazing reputation, so naturally when such an opportunity comes up anyone would take an interest. I was excited by the work that was happening there in developmental psychology generally, with the new Oxford Centre for Developmental Science, and felt I would gain a lot not just in my own specific area of research, but also from this broader exposure.

What is life like on campus? How does Oxford differ from your experience in an Australian university?
It’s a bit hard to describe really, for example, Oxford doesn’t have a campus as such in the same way that Sydney University does. When I was at Sydney University, you clearly knew when you were at uni, and when you were in the surrounding suburbs (Newtown etc). In Oxford, that line is extremely blurred. Similarly, there is a great distinction here in Australia between your student life and the other parts of your life, which doesn’t seem to be the case at Oxford. The colleges that make up Oxford University become a central part of both your academic life and social life, as all students are members of a college.

Are the students at Oxford mainly from the UK?
The students are from all over the world, which to me is one of the great strengths of Oxford. There are so many different perspectives, backgrounds and experiences that come into the work as you talk with other students. There is a strong Australian/New Zealand community that looks after each other, but there are so many international students and students away from home that everyone is in the same boat to some extent.

Do any of your fellow students have any understanding of Australian Indigenous culture?
Not so much, but again that’s one of the great opportunities of being over there. I’ve learned a lot about many different communities and cultures from around the world from getting to know other students, and I hope that, as part of the small but hopefully growing group of Indigenous Australians at Oxford, we’ve been able to share some understanding of our culture and perspectives as Aboriginal Australians with other students.

Oxford is a long way from country NSW. How have you settled in?
There was a bit of a culture shock, a little more than I was expecting. First term in Oxford runs from autumn to winter, and it’s a bit of a tough run so far from home when the entire environment feels depressing. I was lucky to have my wife with me, and we are both indebted to the Rhodes Scholars community who really helped us out. The current Warden of Rhodes House is an Australian, Dr Markwell, and he did a great job of making sure we settled in, alongside the Australian Rhodes community.

How did you come to apply for the scholarship?
My partner actually brought home some information when the scholarship was first announced and suggested I apply, but we didn’t really think much more about it until the Post-Graduate Scholarships Guide came out. Naturally, to be eligible for the scholarship I had to first be accepted by Oxford, which, given the reputation of Oxford, I thought was extremely unlikely. Still, my family convinced me to give it a shot, and I’m very thankful that they did.

What does it mean to you to be an inaugural recipient of the Charlie Perkins Scholarship?
It’s an honour to be awarded a scholarship that carries the name of such a great Australian with such an amazing legacy. It’s also a bit intimidating and a lot to try to live up to, but hopefully, just as the numbers of Indigenous students enrolling at Australian universities continues to rise since leaders like Charlie Perkins came through, this scholarship will encourage more and more Indigenous students to continue with postgraduate studies.

What advice would you give other Indigenous students interested in studying psychology?
I would definitely encourage other interested Indigenous students to get in contact with their local university or AIPA to talk to someone about how to go about it. I for one would be happy to talk to any such students and hopefully point them in the right direction.

To be honest, that goes for any profession or university course. Education is an important foundation in empowering our communities, and whilst we need more Indigenous psychologists, we also need more Indigenous entrepeneurs, engineers, doctors, lawyers, teachers and so on.

What do you want to do once you’ve finished your studies?
I want to return to my work with Community Services and apply the lessons from my research to improving the services and support provided to children in care.

What are your hopes as a future Indigenous psychologist?
As a psychologist in out-of-home care, I hope to see children that need to be placed in care being able to leave care as young adults with the same life chances and opportunities as any other child. As an Indigenous psychologist in this area, I hope to see a turnaround of the continuing over-representation of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care.

Are there specific contributions that you think Indigenous culture can make to psychology?
I think there is a lot that Indigenous culture and perspectives can contribute to all fields, including psychology, as we are already seeing. To me, it is the diversity that makes places like Oxford so special in terms of innovation and ideas, and in the same way I feel the unique cultures and perspectives of Indigenous communities across Australia will continue to make significant and growing contributions in a range of areas.

The Charlie Perkins Scholarships

In 2009, with the assistance of the University of Oxford, the Charlie Perkins Trust established annual Charlie Perkins Scholarships to provide two talented Indigenous Australians each year with the opportunity to undertake postgraduate study at the University of Oxford from 2010. These postgraduate scholarships are particularly directed towards Indigenous Australians who have the potential to become leaders in their field of study and in their communities. The first two Charlie Perkins Scholars are being funded by the Australian Government, the British Government (through the Chevening program) and Rio Tinto.

For information on the Charlie Perkins Scholarships, go to www.perkinstrust.com.au/about.html.

The Australian Indigenous Psychologists Association (AIPA) maintains a register of Indigenous psychology students; for further details see www.indigenouspsychology.com.au.


Disclaimer: Published in InPsych on August 2011. The APS aims to ensure that information published in InPsych is current and accurate at the time of publication. Changes after publication may affect the accuracy of this information. Readers are responsible for ascertaining the currency and completeness of information they rely on, which is particularly important for government initiatives, legislation or best-practice principles which are open to amendment. The information provided in InPsych does not replace obtaining appropriate professional and/or legal advice.