The day nearly always starts with ABBA, loud enough to be heard from the beach, where crocodiles guard the coast.
“You mob … class time,” Penny Yibarbuk hollers as Dancing Queen wraps up.
The makeshift classroom fills slowly as students settle behind laptops, but there are lots of chairs to spare — not everyone makes it this far.
“You chose to come here to study, nothing else,” cultural professor and traditional owner Kevin Rogers reminds everyone.
“To learn about who we are and to develop your academic skills.
“But we don’t want you to stop. We want you to finish your study here, and then you can go down to Sydney.”
This is “bush university” — a year-long pre-university course unlike anything else in Australia.
And these students are days away from graduating.
Bush university a major feat
Nestled deep within the traditional lands of the Warndarrang people in south-east Arnhem Land, the only way in to the Wuyagiba Study Hub, better known as “the bush uni”, is via a long treacherous sandy track that tests the traction of the best of vehicles.
Once a week, a ramshackle Troopy makes the two-hour journey to the nearest remote community of Ngukurr to bring back boxes of food. Dinner is cooked on camp fires at night and a billy for tea is always on the go.
For the past 10 weeks, these students have taken part in an intensive tertiary “two-way learning” course designed to prep them for further study at Macquarie University in Sydney.
“After year 12, there are no pathways to university for [young Aboriginal people],” Mr Rogers, a co-founder of the Bush university, said.
But this course is changing that.
Since its inception in 2018, the bush university has seen 80 students graduate, and 23 students take on further study at Macquarie.
This is a major feat in a part of the world where less than 1 per cent of Indigenous students go on to higher education, and barriers to university can often seem insurmountable, says Emilie Ens, a senior lecturer in Environmental Science at Macquarie University.
Dr Ens helped get the study hub off the ground.
“There are pathways, but they are not as visible for people living out remote who don’t have access to a computer, email, or maybe even a TV or phone,” she said.
“But at the end of the day, people maybe don’t feel comfortable stepping into this unknown space.
“Walking in both worlds is a very scary thing when you come from a place where English is your second, third, fourth, or fifth language.”
Academic teacher Daniel Bishton describes a typical day like this: “We wake up, and we play some music to get everyone up and out of bed,” he said.
“We have breakfast — the cook will have that all ready.
“We’ll assemble in the classroom, and students will either have a day of academic teaching or cultural teaching.”
He said it could be really challenging, really full-on.
“We teach an intensive course here,” he said.
“Students are in the classroom from 9 to 5 every day … and these are brand new concepts, and it’s a really high pace.”
‘I felt like I wasn’t going to make it’
After graduation, Penny Yibarbuk wants to continue studying to become a doctor in the hope of tackling a life-threatening disease that impacts scores of young people in her community and one she has fought since a young age.
“I’ve got rheumatic heart disease and I want to help people because the whole Northern Territory is affected,” she said.
“I want to be that person who sees what is really causing [the disease].”
At just 20 years old, Ms Yibarbuk was already working as a ranger in Gunbalanya.
Like many young people in the Northern Territory, she was grappling with a feeling of wanting more but not knowing how to get it.
“I actually felt like I wasn’t going to make it,” she said.
“When I heard about the Wuyagiba Study Hub, I jumped with excitement.”
One Friday, a week before graduation, Kevin Rogers careens everyone into two Troopys for an expedition.
The morning had been spent fine-tuning final essays, and the cultural component of the course was equally weighted, he said.
“It’s a two-way education — academic and cultural,” Mr Rogers said.
“It’s very important we maintain our culture, because of colonisation, because of our old people passing away.”
Bush university co-founder Helen Rogers said “that’s why some of our languages have vanished”.
“We don’t want that,” she said.
“We want to maintain and revitalise cultural heritage and language.”
The hunt for natural dyes and pandanus for weaving begins as everyone tumbles out of the dusty trucks — a slow and arduous process that requires eyes to the ground at all times.
Eventually, Ms Yibarbuk, the aspiring doctor, spies small tufts of grass indistinguishable from their surroundings and begins to dig for the root beneath.
On top of mastering university-level assignments, the students have learnt about bush medicines, kinship systems, local history and the impacts of colonisation.
Building the next generation of leaders
Dennis Daniels grew up on the traditional country of the Budal Yutpundji-Milwarapara people in Urapunga and was an assistant teacher in Ngukurr.
Yet, he said, everything he had learned about his culture in the course was new.
“This course has made a big difference in my life because of the western and cultural way of learning,” Mr Daniels said.
Mr Daniels wants to study business administration at Macquarie when he graduates.
“I wanted to make something of myself,” he said.
“I have a daughter. I want to be a role model, not just for my daughter, but for the sake of all my family.”
Once equipped with a degree, Mr Daniels said he wanted to start his own business to employ his siblings.
He wants them “to get out of community and back onto country, so that way they don’t get mixed in the violence.”
Since starting bush university, Mr Daniels has noticed an immense change within himself.
“The challenging thing for me was being away from family and my little one,” he said.
“I had the thought [about leaving] a lot of times, but I didn’t want to give up.
“I didn’t have what I have now … I’ve found peace in myself.”
Eddie Albert also wants to be a leader in his community of Ngukurr.
And after years of seeing the health clinic flounder due to understaffing issues, he is hoping to gain qualifications as an Aboriginal health worker.
Mr Albert hopes more young people will follow suit so that one day, the clinic can be run solely by Aboriginal workers.
But first, he has to tackle the big smoke, a foreign place that resembles little of what he’s known his whole life.
“It is going to be my first time in Sydney, Mr Albert said.
“I’ve never been down there, but I’m looking forward to go.”
Closing a 40-year education gap
In just a couple of months, Melissa Wurramarrba will be Ngukurr’s first university graduate since Kevin Rogers completed his degree at Deakin in the mid-1980s.
It took about a year for Ms Wurramarrba to begin flourishing in the starkly foreign world of skyscrapers and academia, but she said her stint at bush university gave her the groundwork she needed.
“It was a different world, and it was hard for me,” she told the ABC from the Macquarie campus, where she has been studying for the past couple of years.
“In my second year, I started to realise that, you know, this is important.
“I have to focus and stop thinking about family for a moment.”
After graduation, she wants to complete a master’s in education.
“So that I can be the first Aboriginal teacher in my community for over 40 years.”
Earlier this year, the bush university received a further four years of funding from the federal government.