Paying it forward

Since 2002, the Monika Law Scholarship has assisted Indigenous women studying at UTS. Rebecca McGrath is the latest recipient and is in her final year of a Bachelor of Law/Bachelor of Arts (International Studies). Recently, Law’s positive experiences with Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning have also compelled her to leave a substantial bequest to UTS. The women talk to U: about their friendship and the opportunities available to future Indigenous students.

Rebecca McGrath and Monika LawRebecca McGrath and Monika Law

Rebecca McGrath

I’m the first of my extended family ever to go to university. I was in my first year of law when I was awarded the Monika Law Indigenous scholarship through Jumbunna. The Scholarship is awarded by semester, and is continued if the student passes the next semester's exams. I’ve been fortunate enough to have it for the duration of my six-year degree.

Besides helping me with daily expenses and living costs, having the scholarship meant I didn’t have to work on top of my studies during the first couple of years. This allowed me to really enjoy learning as opposed to just ‘managing’ everything.

When I first started the scholarship, Monika gave me a little book about her history. I read it and was compelled to email her that same night. This was the start of our friendship. Monika began reviewing my assignments and grammar and answering my questions about anything and everything. She even put me up at her place when I was sick with a bacterial infection, taking me to doctors and accompanying me to the hospital. Emotionally, academically, financially, she’s been a never-ending support.

I felt I came in to my degree already lacking the foundations to start with, so I took on extra things like tutorial assistance programs and international exchange. Thailand was my international studies major and it was a fantastic opportunity to study there. My main interest is child welfare and juvenile justice. I did my honours thesis on the contemporary removal of Aboriginal children by the Department of Community Services and juvenile justice agencies. I’m currently working as a Tipstaff to Justice Simpson at the Supreme Court, undertaking legal research, providing administration support and assisting the judge during court.

I think I’d like to go back to the country in the next couple of years and work with Legal Aid or The Western Aboriginal Legal Service; or perhaps something human rights focused. People like Professor Larissa Behrendt – who was recently named Indigenous Person of the Year by the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) – are my role models and I’d like to follow in their footsteps. Like Monika, Larissa has been a mentor to me, taking time out of her busy schedule to provide me with guidance and advice when I’ve needed it.

Jumbunna have become my family, welcoming me whether I’ve been ecstatic or in tears. There’s a real sense of belonging there; I hope my connection with them never ends. Monika has also definitely become family. I’m forever grateful that she’s let me into her life and that she’s a part of mine.

I remember being one of eight children in Parkes, a small NSW country town, and feeling like I was never going to get out and be anything. I really wanted an education, to advance myself. Monika has enabled me to do this, and I hope she understands just how huge that is. Knowing that someone out there believes in me enough to provide financial assistance is the greatest gift. My aim is to one day provide my own scholarship to students.

Monika takes me to the theatre and to concerts at Government House; I have to pinch myself sometimes! I feel like Pip, the character in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Words like inspirational, intelligent and selfless really don't capture Monika's many wonderful qualities. There are so many things that she stands for. Actually, I can describe her in two: a miracle. She’s my fairy godmother.

Monika Law

I was four years old when in 1939 my family and I came to Australia from Vienna as Jewish refugees. My parents had the sense to leave while many others were denying the horrors of the Holocaust could happen to them. We were referred to as ‘enemy aliens’ here in Australia during World War II. It explains why a lot of the Jewish refugees have become involved in Indigenous issues – they know personally about discrimination.

In 1975, I went to the Women and Politics conference in Canberra for the International Year of Women. As a feminist I was shocked to find that I knew nothing of Indigenous women and their suffering. There were two women from Palm Island there talking about the discrimination they had suffered. Everyone in NSW schools had blue-covered Commonwealth Bank books, and on Palm Island the Indigenous people’s books were white. They really had no autonomy whatsoever. My sense of justice was outraged at that.

When I retired in 1990 I learnt a friend’s father was involved in setting up scholarships through the Aboriginal Educational Council, for year six Indigenous students going to high school. I joined the council and I also joined what was then the Roberta Sykes Black Women’s Action in Education Foundation. I began to donate to that scholarship scheme because Roberta herself had received a scholarship to go to Harvard to do a PhD in English, and the first person they were involved in supporting to go to Harvard was Larissa Behrendt – now a Professor of Law at UTS and the Director of Research at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning. That’s how I became involved with scholarships at UTS.

It’s been such a wonderful privilege knowing Rebecca. The support and friendship that has developed has been so rewarding for both of us. We just took to each other. She’s very overt about being appreciative for the opportunities the scholarship has allowed her.

I think Rebecca’s the most wonderful young woman I’ve ever known. I’m boggled by how much she does. She’s running marathons, working, studying. She’s even heading to Canada and Italy to give a paper on Indigenous human rights in Australia. I’ll actually be joining her on the Canada trip.

I wouldn’t say I’ve taken her under my wing – we’re more equal than that. It’s a mutual appreciation. She and I email and visit and tell each other about our lives. I’m sure I still don’t have an in-depth knowledge of what life is really like for Indigenous people. I was a school counselor for a long time and Rebecca asks for advice occasionally. I help if I can.

It’s been such a privilege to watch Rebecca progress. If I had to describe her in a few words, I’d say hard-working, intelligent, dedicated, conscientious and appreciative. Though that’s not really getting the full gist of it, because what I really want to say is that she’s very clear about what she wants to achieve, and works hard for it.  She’s a slip of a girl, as we used to say, but a wonder.

Katia Sanfilippo

Marketing and Communication Unit

Photographer: Joanne Saad

Business and Law