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Indigenous education champion honoured with UC degree

Amanda Jones

28 September 2017: For the past decade, Richard Potok has worked tirelessly to help transform the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians through education.

As the founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Aurora Project and the Aurora Education Foundation, Dr Potok has been instrumental in growing the number of Indigenous Australian leaders, mentors and academic role models.

He’s made a career out of encouraging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians to realise their potential and will receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Canberra on Thursday in recognition of his distinguished service to Indigenous education initiatives.

“It’s a tremendous honour to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Canberra,” Dr Potok said.

“The fact that it comes from a university whose Chancellor was the first Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander man to hold such a position in an Australian university makes it even more special.”

The Aurora Project was established in 2006, in response to research into the challenges facing lawyers working at Native Title Representative Bodies. It has since expanded to include Indigenous education initiatives through the Aurora Education Foundation.

Central to Dr Potok’s work is an academic enrichment program for high school students. Known as The Aspiration Initiative, the program is delivered to students in NSW, Victoria and WA with diverse personal circumstances and ranging in levels of academic performance. To date, more than 80 students have been supported through this pilot program, with plans to scale it to 22 local programs reaching 4,000 students over the next decade.

This program is complemented by the Indigenous Scholarships Portal and Match Service, aimed at making university study more accessible by connecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tertiary students with over 800 scholarships.

In addition to The Aspiration Initiative, of which the University of Canberra is a proud partner, Dr Potok also paved the way for Indigenous Australians to study at leading overseas universities.

Before 2010, no Indigenous Australian had ever studied for a full-time degree at the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge. Since then, 21 postgraduate students have graduated from these institutions. This October there will be 13 Indigenous postgraduates studying at Cambridge, Harvard and Oxford. Through the Aurora Outreach program, these students then connect with and inspire younger Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in schools and communities across Australia.

Postgraduate students receive financial support through the Charlie Perkins Scholarship Trust and the Roberta Sykes Indigenous Education Foundation. Dr Potok is a Trustee and Executive Director of both foundations.

“Every single one of these students has been accepted on their own academic merits,” he said.

“It’s an exciting story to tell – it’s beyond what Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians thought was possible.”

“It is very rewarding to see the real difference being made in these students’ lives,” Dr Potok said. “The Australian education system is creating wonderful students; we are simply helping them see there is a door there and encouraging them to knock on it and pass through.”

Prior to founding Aurora, Dr Potok was a management consultant at McKinsey & Company in Sydney and worked as a lawyer in New York and London with Davis Polk & Wardwell, before setting up Potok & Co in London.

As part of his law reform work overseas, he presented to governments, financial market participants and students in 35 countries on the need for legal reform in relation to indirectly held securities.

He was Legal Advisor to the Hague Conference on Private International Law for the Hague Securities Convention that was finalised in December 2002.  He has published on conflict of laws, including as editor of Cross Border Collateral: Legal Risk and the Conflict of Laws, a book comparing the law in 25 jurisdictions.

Dr Potok holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Laws from UNSW and a Bachelor of Civil Law from Oxford, where he studied on a Rhodes Scholarship.  He was recently appointed as national adviser on diversity for Rhodes Scholarships in Australia.

Dr Potok plans to offer the following advice to graduates during his occasional address.

“Find something you really enjoy doing and find a way to build that into your career rather than go down the path everyone tells you to follow,” he said.

“I’ve always been passionate about education and social justice issues. Knowing we are making a real difference is what keeps me going.”

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