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September 2011 Issue
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Scholar rising to the challenge


The University of Adelaide's new Dean of Aboriginal Education has won a national award for his work as an Indigenous scholar.

Professor Lester-Irabinna Rigney has received the National Aboriginal Scholar of the Year in the 2011 NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Awards.

He was also runner up in the Aboriginal Person of the Year, South Australian Premier's Award.

The awards recognise his achievements in Indigenous research, education, languages and knowledge transmission.

Professor Rigney is one of the most influential Indigenous scholars in Australia. He has received national and international recognition for the quality of his teaching and research and is author, editor and co-editor of several books on Indigenous education, language and race relations.

He has held visiting research fellowships at various overseas universities, including Cambridge University and the University of British Columbia, and adjunct professorships at the Australian National University and the University of British Columbia.

Professor Rigney was Director of the Yunggorendi First Nations Centre for Higher Education and Research at Flinders University before joining the University of Adelaide in June as Dean of Aboriginal Education and Director of Wilto Yerlo, the Aboriginal programs unit.

A Narungga man, Professor Rigney has been strongly influenced by his childhood experiences of growing up at Point Pearce Mission on South Australia's Yorke Peninsula.

"I'm the product of an Aboriginal community school," Professor Rigney said. "We lived in the Point Pearce community until I was in Grade 7. My mother was a teacher's aide; I grew up in schools since I could crawl.

"My dad found it really difficult to get work so we left the mission and came to Adelaide. When we moved to the city, my mother went on to study teaching. She eventually became the first Aboriginal female school principal in Australia and established the first urban Aboriginal school, the Kaurna Plains School."

Professor Rigney's mother is Dr Alice Rigney, who is highly respected for her work in Aboriginal education and languages.

"That's the sort of role-model I had growing up," he said.

After working as a diesel mechanic in the 1980s, Professor Rigney saved up enough money to study teaching, which was his real passion. "I knew that teaching can make a difference to Aboriginal communities," he said.

As well as earning a teaching degree, Professor Rigney holds a Masters and PhD by research in Education.

He said his key aims at the University of Adelaide are to grow the cohort of Aboriginal students, educators and researchers. "I want to build research capacity inside Wilto Yerlo to contribute to solving some of the 21st century challenges Indigenous communities will face," he said.

"Providing greater access to and participation by Indigenous students in higher education, growing the number of Indigenous scholars, producing research that is responsive to the needs of Aboriginal communities, and producing good policy through our research and teaching - this is what we're aiming to achieve," he said.

At a national level, Professor Rigney is involved in a range of efforts to improve access and participation in Indigenous education at all levels, from schools through to universities.

"Aboriginal education across this country is in crisis," he said. "We have poor attendance rates, Aboriginal numeracy and literacy is at its lowest.

"Early childhood is fundamental for participation in higher education, so reforms are needed even at that level. We know there are issues at secondary school that also need to be addressed for easier transition to university.

"Make no mistake, we've had some improvement - I'm a 'glass half full' man. In universities across Australia we're seeing higher participation rates and higher retention rates of Aboriginal students.

"We're doing far better now than we were a decade ago, but we need to do more," he said.

Professor Rigney will deliver the 2011 Kevin Marjoribanks Memorial Lecture at 6.00pm on Tuesday 27 September in Napier 102 Lecture Theatre, North Terrace Campus. This event is free and open to all but bookings are required - contact Janine Donnell on 08 8313 3731 or email:

Story by David Ellis

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Professor Lester-Irabinna Rigney with his NAIDOC award
Photo by Amanda James

Professor Lester-Irabinna Rigney with his NAIDOC award
Photo by Amanda James

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