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Cambridge calling: Curtin Indigenous graduate sets study record

Media release

A Curtin University engineering graduate has headed to the United Kingdom to become the first Indigenous Australian to study a postgraduate engineering degree at the prestigious Cambridge University.

Perth-raised Judd Harris, who was inspired to apply for Cambridge after taking part in the Aurora Indigenous Scholars International Study Tour in 2014, is undertaking a Master of Philosophy in Engineering for Sustainable Development over 2015-16. He is studying at Cambridge on a Roberta Sykes – Cambridge Scholarship, with support from Arup, the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, the Melbourne School of Engineering Foundation, the Menzies Foundation and the Minerals Council of Australia.

Mr Harris said he planned to use the opportunity to expand his engineering knowledge in order to develop projects that had the potential to improve the wellbeing of Indigenous Australians living in regional Australia.

“As an Indigenous Australian, and an engineer, I am in a position to apply the expertise I would acquire from this course to contribute to Aboriginal communities,” Mr Harris said.

“I intend to use this degree to lead sustainable projects and to apply better facilitation and consultative processes when engaging with communities. My skills and education are in a technical and process field, and I believe that this degree can teach me best practice in the application of engineering.”

On graduating from Carine Senior High School, Mr Harris was awarded the Rob Riley Memorial Prize for being the highest academic ranked Aboriginal student in a public school in Western Australia.

Mr Harris’s academic success enabled him to take up his preferred degree, a Bachelor of Engineering (Chemical) at Curtin, and resulted in two scholarship offers in his first year of university study. He later completed his course with Upper Second Class Honours.

Professor Vishnu Pareek, Head of the School of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, supervised Mr Harris’s honours research project and said he found him to be extremely hard working and intelligent, but also humble, well-mannered and polite.

“I will be on the lookout for him in the years to come, because he is destined to achieve great things,” Professor Pareek said.

Since graduating Mr Harris has undertaken a two-year graduate program with BHP Billiton as a process engineer and has volunteered with the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation as a mentor. He is a firm believer in sharing his experiences with other young Indigenous people as a way of highlighting both the value of a university education and the support available if they choose an academic pathway.

Mr Harris said he would not have been able to take up the Cambridge offer if it hadn’t been for the support of his family and the scholarship, which almost didn’t happen. He applied quite late to Cambridge and was the last to be accepted to the course. By then most scholarship funding cut-off dates had come and gone, but Aurora led a swift and concerted effort and managed to piece together a comprehensive funding partnership which will cover full tuition, a living allowance and transport costs.

“The amount of support and encouragement I received was overwhelming,” Mr Harris said.

“I am well aware that it is my education that is enabling me to transform my life and will potentially transform the lives of others.”

Mr Harris said there were few Aboriginal people working in the mining industry in engineering roles, although numbers were growing. Encouraging more Aboriginal people to pursue a career in the field could assist in self-determination and provide opportunities for them to be the drivers in their own social and economic development.

“Engineering is essentially about promoting positive change and engineers are vital to the growth and sustainability of our communities – they design and provide advice,” he said.

“We need more Aboriginal people in engineering to lead infrastructure projects, rather than solely be the recipients of such projects.

“I am trying to shift perspectives so the mining industry can see the inherent value in what the Indigenous community has to offer. I hope the exposure of my successes as an Aboriginal engineer has both a positive impact on the perspective of colleagues, and on young Aboriginal people.”

Once Mr Harris has completed his studies at Cambridge, he plans to seek work experience in the UK for a year before returning to Australia.