Image: Professor Pep Baker (Left) giving Dr Wili Suluma (right) his PhD testamur.

Dr Wili Suluma, recent UNE PhD graduate, has had a storied learning journey. Originally beginning as a teacher in Fiji where he taught in schools and the University of the South Pacific, he eventually moved to Gladstone in Queensland where he continued to teach until moving to the Northern Territory.

While in the outback Wili taught in a small remote community called Canteen Creek, where he worked for some time until becoming the school principal. Looking for what would come next in his journey Wili decided to take study leave in 2018 to pursue a PhD at UNE.

When considering his PhD research Wili was able to draw from his experiences teaching in the Northern Territory. In fact his motivation and interest for a PhD project came about as a result of his experience teaching in Canteen Creek. His PhD explored the purpose of boarding school for Aboriginal students in remote isolated communities in the Northern Territory, a topic that he had both experience and a passion for.

“Sending Aboriginal students away from their communities for a secondary education in bigger cities has been at the forefront of the remote Aboriginal education debate,” said Wili while describing his research. Until now “no research has investigated the purpose of sending these students to boarding school. My study used the Internal Colonialism Theory and Human Capital Theory to explore stakeholders’ views on the purpose of boarding school for Aboriginal students in remote communities in the NT.” Dr Suluma stated that while his study focussed on Indigenous students in Australia, findings can be applicable in improving Indigenous education in similar contexts around the world.

Quite naturally Wili excelled in his PhD which led to further teaching experiences and the chance to take his educational expertise elsewhere in the world.

“Towards the end of my PhD – February this year,” said Wili. “I was approached by my Principal Supervisor (Professor Pep Baker) to take on the role as the On-island Lecturer in a Teacher Education Project in Nauru run by the UNE School of Education. The role involved providing academic support for Nauru students pursuing their Associate Degree in Teaching (Pacific Focus), Bachelor’s Degree in Teaching (Pacific Focus) and Postgraduate degree. I submitted my thesis for examination in June while working for UNE in Nauru.”

When the recently graduated Dr Wili Suluma was asked about his biggest achievement, despite all of his inspiring educational experiences, he noted rather humbly that his PhD has always been a goal. Achieving success in this area is what he considers his most important achievement.

Dr Suluma also looked back on his time with UNE and noted that the highlights of his study were the unique opportunities he was able to accomplish, notably presenting a paper based on his research at the Think Indigenous Education International Conference in Edmonton, Canada in 2019. Not only was this another inspiring step in Wili’s education journey, but it is a fantastic example of his expertise being presented on an international level.

While discussing his PhD, Dr Suluma had a piece of advice for students thinking of pursuing education through HDR study. In his own words: “PhD can be a lonesome and mentally demanding journey, the passion I have in my area of study is what drives me to get it done.”

Although Wili completed his study this year, he is yet to attend a graduation due to the postponement of the December graduation. However, he was still able to celebrate with those who shared this study journey with him.

“I was looking forward to attending the December graduation, however, due to COVID restrictions the graduation was cancelled. This did not dampen the celebration spirit, my supervisors (Professor Pep Baker and Dr Helen Harper) and I got together for a BBQ and drinks to celebrate the achievement. We took photos in our PhD gown with family members and my principal supervisor Professor Pep Baker handed me the PhD degree to mark the milestone. My third supervisor Professor Neil Taylor was not able to attend as he is based in Cairns.”

Dr Suluma is now looking to the horizon and what will come next. When asked if he had anything planned now that he had completed his time at UNE, he noted that he has been offered a position at James Cook University in Townsville as a Lecturer in Education and is set to begin the role in January 2022. From all those at UNE we wish you luck with the next step in your inspiring story Dr Wili Suluma.