Faith Stevens grew up a long way from Canberra, but an ANU scholarship program for First Nations students is helping her reach her goals.

Faith Stevens hates spiders. Having grown up on Galiwin’ku / Elcho Island off the coast of Arnhem Land, the 18-year-old Yolngu woman is used to encountering all kinds of creatures — from whales, sharks and dolphins to kangaroos, snakes and crocodiles. But it’s spiders that have always terrified her.

When she got out of the shower one morning to discover an inconvenient arachnid on the handle of the bathroom door, it was like a nightmare come to life.

“I was screaming for my mum,” Faith says. “Mum did not help me at all. She told me ‘You have to deal with it. You have to get over your fear. I’m leaving you in there’.”

Faith’s mother has always encouraged her to face her fears rather than staying stuck. This resilience has helped her through her first year as an undergraduate student at ANU.

After spending her whole life near the ocean, studying in Australia’s largest inland city, thousands of kilometres from family and community, has not been easy.

“I definitely felt small,” Faith says of her early days on campus. “Moving from home where everyone knows who you are, from a place where it’s always the same way of life and nothing changes — that’s terrifying.

“I had this realisation a few weeks in that I was an adult and had to take care of myself. It was completely startling because I was so used to looking for permission from other people.”

“Having scholarships has changed my life so much. It’s allowed me to come down here to try to do better for me and my community.”

Faith Stevens

Faith is part of the ANU Kambri Scholars Program, established in 2020 to ensure First Nations students receive the support they need to succeed at university and are set up for professional and personal success.

The ambitious aim of the program is to grow a $50 million endowment to fund the scholarships in perpetuity. ANU will provide $25 million to match donated funds.

Faith applied for the program after being encouraged by one of her high school teachers in Darwin.

Professor Anne Martin, Director of the Tjabal Indigenous Higher Education Centre. Photo: Lannon Harley/ANU

The scholarship was the brainchild of members of the University Executive and the Tjabal Indigenous Higher Education Centre under the directorship of Professor Anne Martin, a proud Yuin woman, in conjunction with Indigenous leaders on campus.

In less than two years, the program has doubled the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander undergraduates commencing at ANU.

“From little things, big things grow — this describes the Kambri Scholars Program perfectly,” Aunty Anne says.

“Education is the greatest equaliser, and in their wisdom, our executive realised they could make a difference for the future. This scholarship will be here changing lives long after we are gone.”

Throughout her first year of university, Faith has turned to Aunty Anne and the Tjabal Centre regularly for academic help and pastoral support.

“I spend a lot of time at Tjabal because there are other Indigenous students there and I feel very safe and comfortable,” she says.

“I can share my stories and feel comfortable doing that because we have similar experiences that we can talk about. I don’t think I would want to come to a university that didn’t have an Indigenous centre on campus. It’s a terrifying thought to be alone, completely removing our support systems.”

While graduation is still a few years away, Faith has the goal of working in education reform after she finishes her degree, with a particular focus on the curriculum taught in Indigenous communities.

“My biggest supporter and motivation was my grandma, and she always spoke about the importance of education, defying stereotypes and becoming a leader in the community.”

With her grandma’s wisdom front of mind, and despite sometimes feeling “awkward”, Faith speaks up when she encounters cultural misunderstandings and stereotypes. Her commitment to education is also motivated in part by her own memories of school and the difficulties she had with grammar and punctuation.

“In a lot of communities, kids don’t learn the appropriate level of literacy and numeracy,” she says.

“The curriculum is very, very different to how it is in mainstream schools. The education system is uneven and unequal to how kids are taught everywhere else.”

Kambri Scholar Faith Stevens. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU

Faith says people are always shocked to learn that English is not her first language, but she believes her fluency has opened doors and she wants others to have the same kind of chances.

“I have so many other Indigenous friends who, because they went to a different school, were able to speak English fluently. I don’t see why we can’t do that in communities too.”

As much as she misses Galiwin’ku — that same ‘island home’ from the song written by George Burrawanga and Neil Murray — she is determined to do the best with the opportunities she has been given.

“Having scholarships has changed my life so much,” Faith says. “It’s allowed me to come down here to try to do better for me and my community, and for other Indigenous communities too.”

While Faith still struggles with homesickness, she says there is one other unexpected perk about life at ANU: far fewer spiders.

Donate to the Kambri Scholars Program, which supports First Nations students to study at ANU.

Top image: Faith Stevens. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU

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