Strength of sisters, mothers and matriarchs
Theresa Ardler comes from a line of strong women. A Gweagal Aboriginal woman of the Eora region of Sydney, she credits the women she grew up with for the success she enjoys today.
The NAIDOC theme for 2018 ‘Because of Her, We Can’ has been a central theme in the life of Theresa Ardler. Born in the Sydney region, she grew up in her father’s country, the Yuin nation in Booderee National Park near Jervis Bay. Her Wreck Bay Aboriginal Community is a matriarchal society where the women are empowered to make decisions about the community based on their vision for the future.
“The Aboriginal Legal Service, the South Coast Aboriginal Medical Service and Aboriginal Women’s Health were established and developed by the women in my community,” Theresa says.
ACU Pro-Chancellor Julien O'Connell AM with Theresa.
“My Mum and Nan were strong women – they shaped me to be the woman I am today. They both had a strong drive, especially in regards to culture. My Nan gave us discipline – I am grateful for this. She was the matriarch.”
A run of firsts
Theresa completed an Associate Diploma in Child Science after high school and then undertook a Bachelor of Education at ACU, which made her the first person in her family to earn a university degree. After graduating, Theresa took a job as the first Aboriginal Education Advisor at the Catholic Education Office in Sydney, which is now called Sydney Catholic Schools Office.
“My role was to work with principals and teachers to advise on all aspects of Aboriginal education,” Theresa says.
“I specifically advised on the initiation sacraments and how to put an Aboriginal perspective into preparing for the sacraments.”
Religious sisters acted as both mentors and mothers
Theresa had a number of mentors during this period, including the late Sister of Mercy Leonie Crotty who was head of Religious Education at the Sydney Catholic Schools Office, and Sister Jennie Ryan, former Congregational Leader of the North Sydney Mercy Sisters.
“Sister Leonie was my mentor and advisor and inspired me to do my Masters in Religious Education while Sister Jennie Ryan was my mentor when I worked as the Aboriginal Education Adviser. Over the years she has become like a mother to me, and I like a daughter to her.”
Theresa then went on to complete a Bachelor of Laws at Australian National University and is now in the last stretch of her Masters in Religious Education at ACU.
Setting goals paved the way
Theresa says it was the women in her family and Catholic community that showed her she had the ability to fulfil her dreams. All she had to do was set goals.
“Throughout my life I have been fortunate to have a strong foundation of women behind me,” Theresa says.
“My Mum and Nan told me to set goals and then work hard to achieve them. I also had the benefit of religious sisters mentoring me. Now I want to help other Indigenous girls and women to achieve their dreams. They must have a goal in life – they must have a plan. Education is the key for us – there is a lot of support out there.”
The road ahead
“I plan to complete my doctorate at Oxford University in conjunction with ACU on the topic, ‘Aboriginal Spirituality: Connecting Sea and Country,’” says Theresa, who currently works for ACU in the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education as the University’s first Research Indigenous Liaison Officer.
“My bloodlines will be the heart of my doctorate. I would look at language, as language acts as a portal for doolamar, which is our magic or our law. It also describes art, dance, ritual and the dreaming, which weaves together the past, the present and the future.”
But before turning her sights to Oxford, Theresa is looking forward to graduating from ACU with her masters next year.
“I do the Welcome to Country at ACU. I will perform the Welcome to Country at my graduation ceremony in my dharawal language and will join the academic procession wearing a possum skin cloak. It will be a very powerful statement when I enter my graduation ceremony wearing my ancestors on my back and wearing my possum skin cloak as I perform on Country in my language.”
NAIDOC Week 2018 ceremony.
Theresa says the support she has received at ACU has played a key role in achieving her academic goals.
"I don’t think I would have been able to do it without everyone at Yalbalinga. They have given me an enormous amount of support with my studies, as well as being there for me when I just needed to have a chat,” Theresa says.
“In addition, Professor Rhonda Craven from the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education has been a huge support in preparing me for my journey into my doctorate. My goal now is to be a professor of Aboriginal spirituality at ACU.”
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