Excerpt from Leila Smith's speech at the 2014 Aurora Indigenous Scholars International Study Tour Reception
Leila was a 2012 Aurora Scholar and a 2013 Charlie Perkins Scholar to Cambridge, where she became the first Indigenous Australian to undertake a top-tier overseas Masters of Public Policy program. She now works at the Nous Group – this makes her the first Indigenous Australian to commence as an associate at a leading management consulting firm.
I was sitting in one of my class seminars at Cambridge earlier this year when the Professor asked us one question, and for me that question cut right the point of why I was there, why we are here tonight, and why the Scholars need to go on these Study Tours.
It was an economics seminar (for my Master’s in Public Policy), and our Professor was talking to us about the economics of happiness.
He was trying to show us that the economy of a country is not always the best measure for the wellbeing of a country (in the same sense that the amount of money a person has is not necessarily the best measure of happiness). He said:
‘Whenever I teach this module to my undergraduates I like to ask them: think of your grandparents when they were your age, do you think that they were less happy than you are today?’
I looked around as people in the class shook their heads thoughtfully.
‘That’s right’ he said.
‘They were probably just as happy as you - and you probably have a lot more money today than your grandparents did at your age.’
I sat there confused and thought ‘am I the only one here who thinks I am happier than my grandparents were?’
When my Nan was my age she lived on an Aboriginal reserve, she couldn’t read or write, had her house regularly inspected, she had trachoma (which is largely a third world condition), her husband had just died in a workplace accident and the compensation payments were being quarantined by the Aboriginal Protection Board.
I’m willing to take the punt that she probably wasn’t as happy as I was sitting up in my class in Cambridge on a full scholarship.
And this actually illustrates my Professor’s point further: that happiness is about having a sense of wellbeing, control over our affairs, and good physical and mental health. For most students in my class, their grandparents had that. Mine didn’t, and for many people in the room tonight, their grandparents didn’t either.
This one thing makes us so different to a lot of other students at Oxford, Cambridge and other prestigious universities: the fact that we can go back only one or two generations to see this striking contrast of extreme disadvantage and lack of opportunity.
And you know what’s worse? Often we don’t even have to look that far. I can think of my cousins, the other Aboriginal kids at my school, even people I met in Canberra last week.
That is why I went on the Study Tour, that’s why we are here tonight, and that’s why these scholars need to go on this year’s Tour. Getting a world class education is something our grandparents never dreamed of, and this is about paying tribute to the past.
And we need to look to the future too – this opportunity brings huge potential to address barriers that our people are still facing today. So our grandkids, if they want it, can have the chance to sit in that economics class in Cambridge, and hopefully they will have to look much, much further to find instances of Aboriginal disadvantage in their family and their local community.
To finish up I’d like to congratulate those of you who are about to embark on this year’s Tour and those of us who have just returned home. I wish you all the best and hope you feel the pride of your Elders, as well as the rest of us in the room tonight, and encourage you once more to take this opportunity with both hands.