Blazing trails: first Indigenous Australian to study engineering at Cambridge

For NAIDOC Week, we would like to share our profile of Indigenous engineer, Judd Harris who spoke with create magazine about his work.
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Blazing trails: first Indigenous Australian to study engineering at Cambridge

For NAIDOC Week, we would like to share our profile of Indigenous engineer, Judd Harris who spoke with create magazine about his work. 

Judd Harris is the first Indigenous Australian to study engineering at Cambridge where he has just completed a MPhil Engineering for Sustainable Development. He plans to use his education to improve the wellbeing of Indigenous people living in remote communities.

After accumulating an impressive number of scholarships, sporting achievements and academic awards, Judd Harris joined BHP

Billiton Iron Ore as a Process Engineer. He could easily have stayed in Perth and carved out a career in the mining industry, but the 25-year-old decided instead to focus on augmenting his engineering skills with the knowledge and experience he needs to ensure people living in remote communities can access the infrastructure, education and employment opportunities urban Australians take for granted.

A discussion with Harris about his upbringing and education illuminated the pivotal experiences that inspired him to choose a path which is more aligned with his personal values about community and giving back.

From Carine to Cambridge

Harris’s experiences during his childhood and adolescence fostered his love of learning, strong work ethic and connection with remote Indigenous communities.

“I have a very diverse background. My father’s the Aboriginal side and my mother is a European migrant, second generation Polish and Italian. My parents split up when I was fairly young so

I had two different homes, one in Perth and one in Leonora (an hour and half north east of Kalgoorlie).”

“They were extremely different, completely juxtaposed environments. It was very static and routine in Perth, very much about school timetables and sports. School holidays were mostly about spending time way out bush. I’d go camping with family, we’d go hunting. I remember hunting goannas and kangaroos when I was 10 years old.”

While holidays in Leonora provided opportunities to learn about life in the bush, positive educational experiences in Perth laid the foundation for academic achievement.

“At Carine Senior High School, I had a really encouraging group of friends and positive experiences with my teachers who were very supportive. Our year was very academic. We have doctors, lawyers and a lot of engineers.”

In Year 10, Harris accessed tutoring through the Indigenous Tutorial Assistance Scheme (ITAS) and says the university student tutors provided crucial support and mentoring which gave him confidence and motivation and inspired him to work hard and aim high.

After completing a Bachelor of Chemical Engineering at Curtin University, he joined BHP Billiton Iron Ore in a graduate position. Once in the workforce, Harris noticed most engineers worked in cities or mines and realised he would prefer to use his engineering skills to

benefit remote communities. An opportunity to participate in the Aurora Indigenous Scholars International Study Tour changed his life. “It was a pivotal academic experience. For the first time, I was able to envisage culture, engineering and my personal values aligning.”

The experience inspired Harris to apply for post graduate study at Cambridge, but he almost didn’t accept the offer due to financial considerations.

The Aurora Education Foundation, which runs the Study Tour, pulled together a range of partners to fund his tuition, living and transport costs.

“I am well aware my education is enabling me to transform my life and will potentially transform the lives of others.”

“Cambridge is an incredible place. The people here are really interested in debate and public discussion of big topics and there’s great things going on all the time.”

“This year here has allowed me to step out of the mining industry and consider my future. I’ve been able to learn about all these fascinating things like international business and economics that will help me contribute to long-term sustainable community development.”

Indigenous engineering solutions

Harris recently submitted his 15,000-word dissertation, entitled “The potential of renewable energy projects in remote Indigenous communities.”

Over his time at Cambridge, he has averaged A’s and is hoping his dissertation will achieve a similar result. He plans to use his new post-graduate qualification to learn about engineering in international development by working with a large company or an NGO.

“I want to get the international, bigger picture and work with different people. I think it will be very interesting to do development work and see what the problems are and how those issues are overcome.”

“In the long run, I’m definitely going back to Australia. I want to look at different economic development opportunities for Aboriginal people and be able to work in remote communities and look at how they can operate more independently and function well.”

He believes it is important to encourage more Indigenous people into the engineering profession as they are committed to their communities, provide culturally-appropriate services and are more likely to employ Indigenous people.

“One of the most beneficial things about having Indigenous engineers is they are more likely to hang around for a long time and understand the community they are working with. There’s an ongoing commitment, a reason to stay and be accountable for the life of the project and the ongoing maintenance. They can also work with people in a way that will look to create opportunities and pathways for employment.”

“It will take time to build up the numbers of Indigenous engineers, so in the meantime, educating engineers about Aboriginal people and how to deal with their complexity and diversity is a good way to foster better working relationships.”

Towards the end of our conversation, Harris reflects, “I’ve experienced a lot of being seen as the Indigenous engineer in the workplace. It can be difficult because sometimes I just want to be seen as an engineer and be respected for the quality of engineering work I do.”

His unwavering focus on finding ways to utilise engineering to improve the wellbeing of people living in remote communities could well be the catalyst for Harris to make his own, unique contribution to the engineering profession.

Judd Harris identifies as one of the Wongi people from the region of Leonora in Western Australia. He is studying at Cambridge on a Roberta Sykes Scholarship with support from the following organisations: Arup, The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, Melbourne School of Engineering Foundation, Menzies Foundation and Minerals Council of Australia.