Sancia Ridgeway accepts award from Lisa Wilkinson

Sancia Ridgeway is presented with her award by competition patron and television presenter Lisa Wilkinson, watched by her father Dr Aden Ridgeway
Sancia Ridgeway is presented with her award by competition patron and television presenter Lisa Wilkinson, watched by her father Dr Aden Ridgeway

Culture and country are such powerful identifiers for Year 10 The Armidale School student Sancia Ridgeway that her passionate expression of being conferred her animal totem as a young Aboriginal woman has won a prestigious creative writing competition.

And the teenager got to meet television personality Lisa Wilkinson when she accepted the prize on Wednesday.

At the ceremony at Western Sydney University’s Whitlam Institute, Sancia’s piece Totem took out the Year 9/10 category before being named ahead of 119 finalists as the overall winner of ‘What Matters’ – billed as “Australia’s most thoughtful writing competition”.

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Open to students from Years 5-12, the competition invites entrants to express their views on any matter they care about and this year attracted more than 3000 entries from NSW, the ACT and Tasmania. 

“I wanted to focus on something personal to me, my family and my culture, rather than a bigger global issue such as social justice which while important, isn’t as personal,” said Sancia, who is from Sawtell in the NSW mid-north coast, which falls in her family’s ancestral lands of the Gumbaynggirr people; her personal totem being Gagu (goanna).

“In particular I wanted to share how totems aren’t novelties or mythology, but very real, powerful and meaningful for Indigenous Australians.”

Sancia was presented with her award by Deputy Chancellor of Western Sydney University Elizabeth Dibbs and Ms Wilkinson, who is the competition patron and grew up in Campbelltown in western Sydney. She also met Nicholas Whitlam and Catherine Whitlam, two of the children of former prime minister Gough Whitlam after whom the institute is named.

The result meant Sancia came away from the competition with prize money, opportunities, and contacts in the publishing and media world who have offered to support and mentor her.

As division winner she received a certificate, $350 prize money and an invitation from event sponsor ReachOut Australia who will give her professional training as a writer and pay her $200 to produce a feature article for the ReachOut.com website.

For being the national winner her prizes included an engraved i-pad, trophy, and a VIP pass to spend a day at the Museum of Australian Democracy (MoAD) in Canberra where she will engage in a range of activities including writing, filming and photography, with all expenses paid.

It’s been a little overwhelming – but in a good way.

Sancia Ridgeway

“I really wasn’t expecting to win, I was so surprised. It’s been a little overwhelming – but in a good way,” she said.

Whitlam Institute Director Leanne Smith said this year’s entries were as courageous as they were diverse, “addressing gender equity, relationships and consent, refugees, indigenous recognition and reconciliation, the environment and the natural world, and inter-generational tolerance”.

Fellow TAS Year 10 student Matthew Wark was also a finalist with his work ‘Freedom Matters’.

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