After a hiatus of two years, due to the 2019 bushfires and the COVID-pandemic, physical graduation ceremonies have come back to the lawns of Booloominbah at the University of New England.
Almost 1000 students graduated at one of six ceremonies on the April 29 - May 1 weekend - including 44 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
More than 1100 Indigenous people have earned degrees through UNE since 1969, but the ceremony on Saturday was particularly special as an Honorary Doctorate was conferred on local Anaiwan Elder, Colin Ahoy.
Through UNE's Oorala Centre, Mr Ahoy has been an important mentor to many students and a cultural advisor to the university.
As UNE's Elder in Residence, Uncle Colin received the Degree of Honorary Doctor of Letters Honoris Causa (HonDLitt) in recognition of his life-long contributions to the Armidale Aboriginal community and the broader New England Region and his ongoing commitment to UNE, the Oorala Aboriginal Centre, and Aboriginal education and employment.
Dr Joe Fraser, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Indigenous Strategies, said Mr Ahoy was a 'special human' and an 'absolutely deserving' recipient of his honorary doctorate.
"He is such a wonderful example of how community and community expertise integrate so well into the university environment," Dr Fraser said.
"It was wonderful to see the intergenerational impact with his family here for graduation and the number of people who came down who were just so happy to see him be recognised for the work that he's done.
This graduation ceremony had one of the biggest Indigenous student cohorts on record Dr Fraser said.
"It was just over 80 graduates last year, which is quite a significant number," he said.
"I think it's the second-highest number of Aboriginal students that have graduated from UNE.
"And it was really lovely to see so many of those people come and be enthusiastic and willing to share with their families the milestones they've achieved."
Brooke Kennedy is a Glen Innes local who graduated with a Bachelor of Science with Honours from UNE. Last weekend, she received her PhD in animal management in remote communities.
Dr Kennedy's goal is to give Indigenous people a voice in academia.
"It obviously felt pretty good when I was first conferred back in December," she said. "But I think the graduation makes it that little more special. I was number 10 on the day to receive my award, and my dad yelled out pretty loudly and started that off throughout the graduation because after that, people felt they were allowed to yell."
Dr Fraser said he had caught up with Dr Kennedy a few times since starting with UNE in January.
"She is another wonderful example of the capacity in this region, in terms of indigenous education, and her work is an example of how Aboriginal academics see community as a really important path in their higher ed study," Dr Fraser said.
"So often, we see people come in, and it's not just about them and their success and status. It's about the contribution they make to the community, and Brooke's work is a really good example of how discipline-specific knowledge enhances community life.
"You'll always hear graduates acknowledging the benefits and the support of community and how what they do benefits the community in an ongoing sense. It's not really about their individual pursuit. It's about how it benefits everybody around us, and that's very true with Brooke and her work."
Dr Fraser said support for Indigenous students at UNE included entry pathways through the TRACKS university preparation program and the Internal Selection Program.
"This provides help to navigate administrative processes and getting started; free tutoring; and scholarships and financial assistance are available," Dr Fraser said.
Some of the 2400 recent alumni who graduated in absentia in the past two years were also in attendance.
As well as graduates and their families, the autumn graduation drew a number of prominent people who were awarded Honorary Doctorates by the University, and who addressed the assembled graduands.
On Friday, addresses were delivered by UNE's Professor Linda Agnew and science communicator Dr David Ellyard.
Prof. Agnew maintained her career at the highest levels of academic accomplishment despite the onset of blindness in adulthood. Dr Ellyard, who graduated from UNE in 1962, went on to become one of Australia's leading science communicators.
On Saturday, songwriter Don Walker, best known for his work with Australian band Cold Chisel, took to the podium followed by leading practice manager Gary Smith.
The songs produced by Mr Walker and Cold Chisel - among them Khe Sanh, Flame Trees, Cheap Wine and Choir Girl - have entered national cultural mythology. Khe Sanh was listed by the National Film and Sound Archive as being of "cultural, historical and aesthetic significance".
Gary Smith has been at the forefront of the Australian medical practice management (and the Australian Association of Practice Management) since the mid-1980s.
On Sunday, addresses were given by Armidale-based social entrepreneur Bernie Shakeshaft, founder of Backtrack Youth Works, and former head of UNE Taree, Yves Byers.
Ms Byers established a presence for UNE in Taree over 20 years, building relationships with students and the community to bring Higher Education to the Mid-North Coast.
Mr Shakeshaft left school at 15 and didn't go back, although his brother is a professor at the University of NSW and the two have collaborated on research papers. His perspective comes from working with youth who have fallen through society's cracks, but who have been able to change course and gain a new perspective on the world and their place in it.
There are two more UNE graduation ceremonies planned for later in the year.
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