Andrew Peters

Swinburne Bachelor of Business graduate, lecturer in Indigenous Studies and driving force behind Swinburne’s Reconciliation Action Plan.

Words by Lucinda Schmidt. Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 30 seconds.

Andrew Peters has a dream. He’d like to see Indigenous culture embedded in all aspects of Swinburne. Over the past 18 years, he’s been instrumental in deepening the university’s Indigenous links and understanding – but he wants more. ‘At the moment, most people see Indigenous culture as a separate thing to them; but it should be a part of them,’ he says. ‘When that happens, I can retire.’

Andrew guest lectures across several courses, on top of lecturing in Swinburne’s Indigenous Studies minor: first-year psychology students receive a two-hour lecture on Indigenous psychology, as do media studies, sociology, health, nursing and design students. But the future Andrew would like to see is more like Swinburne’s new Bachelor of Engineering Practice (Honours), which incorporates Indigenous ways of teaching and learning in the structure of the degree.

An Indigenous awakening

Andrew’s own Indigenous awakening was gradual. He grew up in Healesville, an hour north-east of Melbourne, a descendant of the Wurundjeri and Yorta Yorta people through his mother and maternal grandparents. ‘I was very well aware we were Aboriginal, and certainly there was a community, but we didn’t talk about it much and we didn’t do much about it,’ he says. ‘There was never an epiphany, but in my early teens I started asking more questions and got a bit more involved with Aboriginal kids; it was a progressive thing.’

‘I was very well aware we were Aboriginal, and certainly there was a community, but we didn’t talk about it much and we didn’t do much about it.’

His journey to academia took many twists and turns. He dropped out of his first university course after a month and worked in a bank for five years, where he hated the job but loved the sense of community. He moved to Port Douglas, in Far North Queensland, to play footy and work in a pub and as a labourer, before returning home to jobs at Healesville Sanctuary and a winery. Andrew credits Lorraine Lilley, an Indigenous liaison officer, with his return to tertiary education. She suggested he try a university close to home – Swinburne’s Mooroolbark campus – and think about a marketing degree, because he was good at talking.

The road to academia

Andrew finished his undergraduate business degree in marketing and tourism in 1998, at the university’s Lilydale campus. Two of his lecturers, Ian Kelly and Tony Nankervis, played key roles in setting him on the path to a career he loves. They urged him to apply for a Pratt Foundation scholarship to study in Canada for four months, as part of his honours research on Indigenous tourism. The scholarship targeted Indigenous students and paid for travel expenses and living costs. Andrew stayed in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and says he developed lasting friendships and networks.

‘I had no ambitions to become an academic,’ Andrew confesses. ‘I did honours because I was getting the trip to Canada, but that trip taught me so much about Indigenous Canadian culture and I found that when I returned much of that knowledge allowed me to better understand our own Indigenous culture and history.’

Another important mentor was Professor Barbara van Ernst, deputy vice-chancellor of Swinburne’s Lilydale campus from 1997 to 2007. ‘She was really instrumental in getting Lilydale on board with Indigenous education,’ Peters says, adding that its dual-sector TAFE and higher education approach encouraged Indigenous students by offering a non-traditional academic path. ‘Lilydale was a pioneer within Swinburne. There was a real sense of community there and we were one of the first areas of Swinburne to enter online learning. It became a place where Indigenous students could get a real, first-hand experience of higher education while enrolling in TAFE courses that were more suitable. I could feel the shift in culture while I was a student,’ he says.

Embedding Indigenous culture and history across the university

Andrew may be an accidental academic, but he’s been tutoring and lecturing at Swinburne since 2000. He worked at the Lilydale campus until it closed in 2013 and retains close friendships with many of his colleagues from those days. More recently, at Swinburne’s campus in Hawthorn, he was a driving force behind the university’s first Reconciliation Action Plan, released in 2014, and is still actively involved in the project. ‘The importance of the plan was in getting everyone in the university engaged with Indigenous culture and history,’ he says. In February 2017, he completed his PhD examining contemporary Indigenous culture, identity and education.

‘The importance of the [Reconciliation Action Plan] was in getting everyone in the university engaged with Indigenous culture and history.’

Swinburne, he says, has given him not only a career but also a passion. ‘It’s helped me to be really proud of who I am as an Aboriginal person and that has a lot to do with the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Linda Kristjanson. I can express my cultural identity in an academic sense.’

In his guest lectures, Andrew often talks about his own story and draws on his cultural background to help him teach. ‘Part of our Indigenous learning is understanding that our personal stories are part of the exchange of knowledge,’ he says. That includes a discussion about Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve, established in 1863 near Healesville after Indigenous leaders petitioned authorities to give them back some land. The community flourished, building houses, planting crops and running a highly productive farm, but the Aboriginal Protection Board undermined its success, forcibly moving young people away and eventually closing the reserve in 1924.

‘[Swinburne has] given me an identity and connections with various groups and people I wouldn’t have met otherwise.’

His academic career has also opened doors to work he could never have imagined doing back in his bank teller days. At his beloved Richmond Football Club, Andrew is evaluating the effectiveness of a program in its Korin Gamadji Institute, which runs four-day camps for young Aboriginal people, focusing on leadership, health, careers and cultural pride. And Andrew is assessing programs to equip Indigenous inmates with skills for rehabilitation at Port Phillip Prison. ‘There’s no way I’d be doing these things without Swinburne,’ Andrew says. ‘It’s given me an identity and connections with various groups and people I wouldn’t have met otherwise.’

Leaving a legacy

Of course, it’s not all been one way. Andrew has helped shape Swinburne in fundamental ways, by broadening the awareness and understanding of Indigenous culture within the university. In 2012, he won a Vice-Chancellor’s Education Award for innovative curriculum development to challenge and motivate students and for establishing and maintaining links between Swinburne and the Wurundjeri community.

‘I saw this as a way of utilising my connections with Wurundjeri land and community and bringing them into the classroom; for example, taking students on excursions and adding authentic, contemporary culture to their learning and understanding,’ he says. He’s also been secretary of the staff club committee for the past 11 years. The committee arranges staff get-togethers to foster collegiality.

‘The measure of success for me is that the value of Indigenous culture is being recognised more broadly.’

‘Five years ago, this university was a very different place as far as Indigenous education was concerned,’ he says. ‘We had very little and I was the only Indigenous academic.’ Now, there are two academics and about a dozen staff with Indigenous heritage. Andrew hopes to help increase those numbers further, to further embed Aboriginal culture and knowledge into Swinburne’s DNA. ‘The measure of success for me is that the value of Indigenous culture is being recognised more broadly,’ he says. ‘Many more people at Swinburne are now aware of it and how to incorporate it into all aspects of university life. I guess I would like that to be my legacy.’

Andrew Peters (Swinburne story)

The ancestors' call: Andrew Peters, lecturer in Indigenous studies