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Rise above: First recipient of values-based UC scholarship determined to break cycle of intergenerational trauma

Suzanne Lazaroo

Content warning: This article includes mention of family trauma and domestic violence.

2 February 2023: Bachelor of Arts (Culture and Heritage) student Kyrah Hennessy is the very first recipient of the University of Canberra’s annual Seek Aspire Inspire (SAI) scholarship – and says that applying for the unique award made her look at her own life in a whole new way.

The undergraduate award is inspired by the ONE sculpture on the University’s Bruce campus, with recipients demonstrating the values embodied within the artwork – peace, truth, love, right conduct and non-violence. It reflects the ideas of seeking out goals, aspiring to attain them in a manner guided by principles – and thereby inspiring others.

“I had never thought of myself in those terms,” Ms Hennessy said. “At first, I wasn’t even sure if I should apply – but I spoke to a few people in my life, and they helped me see how much those values are a part of my life.”

The scholarship application process also made Ms Hennessy – a proud Aboriginal woman of Wiradjuri and Yuin heritage – reflect on how far she has come.

“I have overcome significant trauma, domestic violence and personal challenges,” she said.

“I was in foster care since I was born, and experienced family trauma, as well as cultural disconnection – I was the only Aboriginal person in Year 12 at my school in regional New South Wales.”

Ms Hennessy recalls that many people told her she’d never make it to university – but the more prolific the put-downs, the more determined she was to rise above them.

“I have always wanted to try for something better, to be better,” Ms Hennessy said. “I know you can look at my life experiences in a pretty negative way – but I think I’ve come out ok, and I’m pretty positive. I am working hard to achieve my goals, and I understand that failing is a part of learning – but not trying would be the real failure.”

One of those goals is to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma she experienced as a child.

“Education is a large part of that, helping me to take the lead for my future – our future – as a first in family university student,” Ms Hennessy said.

Her journey to connect with culture has been lifelong.

“I was always passionate about learning Aboriginal history in school, and sharing it with others,” she said. To that end, she stepped up as a volunteer at schools in Nowra – imparting her own experiences as a young Aboriginal person – and got involved in her community’s NAIDOC Week and Sorry Day activities.

In the process, she furthered her own cultural understanding.

Ms Hennessy’s late foster mother was Aboriginal; at 15, she went to live with her foster father. “He’s not Aboriginal, but we learned about my culture together,” she said.

Her cultural connection was further strengthened when she signed up for IPROWD (Indigenous Police Recruitment Our Way Delivery), straight after school.

“IPROWD is a pathway program for Aboriginal people to join the force police force,” she said. While she ultimately decided on a different direction, the course enabled her to better connect with her Elders, an opportunity for which Ms Hennessy is grateful.

Now in the second year of her Bachelor of Arts degree, Ms Hennessy is enjoying every minute of the University of Canberra experience, and finds herself increasingly drawn to curatorship.

“I like the idea of looking after cultural artefacts, and my teacher says there is a great need for Aboriginal curators,” Ms Hennessy said.

SAI scholarship recipients receive $3,000 towards living expenses.

In addition to the SAI scholarship, Ms Hennessy also received the University of Canberra Commencement and Continuation Scholarship, a Commonwealth Scholarship funded by the Federal Government. Both awards have helped alleviate the financial burden she has struggled with.

“I had a lot of anxiety around expenses, and the scholarships have really helped to lessen those worries,” she said. “I am still working, but at least I don’t have to work as many hours as before just to pay the bills, and I can focus more on my studies.”

The SAI scholarship was endowed by Dr Naren Chellappah OAM and his family, who also commissioned the ONE sculpture by artist Geoffrey Drake-Brockman, and gifted it to the University in 2019.

Dr Chellappah has always thought it more important to be a good human, than one just deemed materially ‘successful’ by convention.

“That means having certain values that you live by – it’s about values in action, that lead to right conduct,” he said.

The five values crystallised in the ONE sculpture are the ones most personally important to him.

“It’s important to think in the broader context, but also, in an achievable one. If you think ‘I want to change the world’, that’s a huge thing to fathom – but if you start with small, positive changes to help and influence the people around you, that is something meaningful we can all aspire to.

“I think Kyrah is a wonderful role model – she’s very community-minded, has clear goals and has set about achieving them in the right way. The self-reflection that she talked about is exactly in the spirit of the SAI scholarship.”

Dr Chellappah would like to extend special thanks to Eoghan O’Byrne, Director of Advancement at the University of Canberra, for helping to make the SAI scholarship a reality.

For more information on the SAI scholarship, visit the SAI scholarship page. Applications open on 11 February 2023.

For more information on the many other scholarships available at the University of Canberra, go to the Scholarships home page. These scholarship applications close on 10 February 2023.