At the end of May my husband, Scott, and I shared a meal in a local restaurant to celebrate the culmination of my six and a half years of university. Quietly playing in the background was the Byrds’ 1965 hit, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” This reminded me of the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, “in everything there is a season and a time.” The reality had hit me earlier that this was my tenth year of the study which began in 2007 when I undertook the Christian Formation Course through the Tenison Woods Education Centre (TWEC) with the Sisters of St Joseph, Lochinvar.
Several memories remain from this tentative beginning in adult faith formation. Like many of my classmates I was concerned that three years was an enormous undertaking and I questioned my ability to see it through. We were informed that the course was accredited, attendance recorded and assessments set, so it was possible to gain credits if participants elected to attend university. I can clearly recall scanning the room thinking ‘Wow, some here will be able to go on to university’, never in my wildest dreams considering it would be me!
The Sisters’ advice and wisdom made a deep impact as they challenged each of us to ‘come open − come empty’. This has been something I have carried with me, gaining incredible freedom and insight over the years. My fellow TWECians have been outstanding ‘companions on the journey’, during the course and in the years following.
Throughout my life I have been blessed by the wisdom and mentoring of inspirational women, none more so than the Sisters of St Joseph. This has allowed me to grow spiritually and academically. My studies took me on a theological journey through history and philosophy that had been influenced by dominant Eurocentric male thinking, challenging at times for a woman. However, these strong women have guided me. I have been greatly supported in my ongoing academic scholarship by my spiritual director, Sr Lynette Pearce rsj.
Within the first three months of 2011 my father, whom I had cared for in his final stages of cancer, had passed away, I had entered university, discovered my Aboriginal heritage − and learned the truth about my paternal grandfather’s removal from family and country as a two-year-old. It was a lot to process!
The first six weeks of university just made my head hurt, but I soon learned that I was not alone and was encouraged by conversations with my classmates. It was through these conversations that I came to enjoy the friendship and support of fellow travellers. Over the course of our study, the support and encouragement we received from our lecturer, Dr Tim Stanley, contributed greatly to our success and perseverance. Tim would often ask me, “Jennifer, what do you want to be when you grow up?” This question often directed my study and ultimately charted a path dominated by social justice, listening to the voices from the margins.
One of the benefits of attending a secular university has been exposure to the diversity of people, beliefs and cultures which has been exhilarating and refreshing. Learning about the Abrahamic faith traditions − Judaism, Christianity and Islam − revealed the common ground we share.
My Indigenous studies have been transformational and of enormous assistance in my recent role as an Aboriginal Youth Worker in the Biripi community. Wollotuka’s Elder in Residence, Aunty Sandra Griffin, has provided considerable encouragement in both my studies and the search to uncover and understand my family’s history. I was welcomed with open arms and warm hugs, just like my experience at TWEC. I felt I was coming home. My final unit on Indigenous Research has allowed me to see how unknowingly we carry what Roth terms an “unreflective Eurocentric bias” into the fields we endeavour to study. This course also revealed my lifelong love of stories and how we can grow and relate to others through sharing our stories. My studies have allowed me to articulate all I have held deep within about faith and spirituality and this knowledge has been empowering and liberating. This enables me to empower others.
This journey would not have been possible without my family. Their love, support and encouragement have been at times overwhelming. Having left school at 16, with an acute sense of being an average student, now holding a Bachelor of Theology, I find myself simply smiling with delight. My advice to others is ‘Dare to take that leap of faith, because you have no idea of the strength you carry within you or where your journey may take you. Do not doubt, but believe!’ (Jn 21:27)
Postscript: I have been invited to undertake Honours in Aboriginal Studies in 2018. So rather than this being the end of my journey, I now feel it is only just the beginning!