Friday, 20 April 2012 10:36



A Tiwi Islands community and Downlands College, Toowoomba, are together celebrating a unique milestone in education. PAUL DOBBYN reports

EIGHTEEN-YEAR-OLD Selina Puruntatameri is believed to be the first English-as-a-second- language, remote-area Aborigine to attend an Australian university. One of those observing the achievement said: "Our nation should be glowing with pride at this milestone in its history."

The former Downlands College, Toowoomba student from the Tiwi Islands recently began studies in law at the Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory.  Selina's supporters have hailed the achievement as "remarkable", made all the more so by the young woman's initial isolation from mainstream Australia.

Adopting English as her second language, she grew up in remote Milikapiti at the top of Melville Island, with a population of 300 and 90 minutes by car from Nguiu which itself has only 1500 people.

Selina's mother Rosabelle Wonnaemeri believes her daughter's success belongs to everyone - starting with the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart priests and Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Sisters, who worked with the island's Aborigines "so they could claim their place as equals in the Australian community".

"There's also the St Vincent de Paul Society, which has spent more than $100,000 on Aboriginal education over the years," she said.

"These ordinary Australians wanted Aboriginal parents to be part of a graduation crowd." Thanks to this generosity, Ms Wonnaemeri ad her sister Patsy Tipungwuti were able to attend Selina's recent graduation.  The St Vincent de Paul Society, with the generous support of donors, assisted five Tiwi students at Downlands during the 2009/10 financial year.

"Downlands bent over backwards to make this program work," Ms Wonnaemeri said. Professor Wendy Hoy has also received credit for supporting Selina and other students in the program.  She and her husband have hosted Downlands' Tiwi Island students and helped fund the program for the past seven years.  As Professor of Medicine and director of the Centre for Chronic Disease at the University of Queensland, Prof Hoy is world renowned for her work on kidney disease, diabetes and cardiovascular disease in disadvantaged or high-risk populations.

Prof Hoy noted: "It is only 100 years since the Tiwi Islands were colonised - and a bush Aborigine has pushed through the undergrowth of our education system to make it to university - this is a remarkable first in Australian history. "It took 110 years for the progeny of the Irish famine refugees to make it to university.

"It is a staggering achievement that a hunter-gatherer Aborigine has succeeded in a mere 100 years."

Reproduced with permission: The Catholic Leader.