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'Proud Blak' aspiring teachers head to Rome as Conaci Scholars

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Zane, 23, is a Wakka Wakka man with connections to Torres Strait Island, and Ryan, 21, is a Gamilaroi man. Image: supplied

Aspiring teachers and close university mates Ryan St. John and Zane Ratcliff have a message for their fellow young mob: “Be proud to be Blak”.

The young Indigenous men, who consider each other family, will take their message to Rome next month on an ACU scholarship for First Nations students, which will be the first overseas trip for both students.

Named to honour the memory of an Aboriginal boy who, in the 1850s, travelled from New Norcia, Western Australia, to Rome to study in a Benedictine monastery, the Francis Xavier Conaci Scholarship offers an Australian Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander student to study at ACU Rome Campus.

ACU Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous) Kelly Humphrey said Zane and Ryan inspired young men who would make ACU’s First Nations community proud.

“ACU's commitment to reconciliation is embodied through the Conaci Scholarship, which not only presents an exciting opportunity but also serves to honour the significant story of Francis Xavier Conaci,” Ms Humphrey said.

“I congratulate Zane and Ryan on this achievement and look forward to their contributions to leadership and cultural sharing throughout their time in Rome and beyond.”

Zane, 23, is a Wakka Wakka man with connections to Torres Strait Island, and grew up on country in Gayndah, while Ryan, 21, is a Gamilaroi man who grew up off country in Caboolture, on Brisbane’s north.

“I grew up on Country which is a really big deal for me, I go back there often for a reconnection to culture and country,” Zane said.

“I know where I’m from, who I am, and that I can always go back to my culture.”

Zane is completing a Bachelor of Education (Primary and Secondary) after being inspired by his teachers in Gayndah. Ryan is in his final year of a Bachelor of Education (Secondary), on a scholarship from Brisbane Catholic Education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people.

Both remember the nerves, uncertainty, and good fortune of their first day of lectures.

“We met on our first ever day at ACU, in a history class together,” Ryan said.

“I was looking around thinking I didn’t know anyone here, but this fella came in and had the same sort of hair as me and looked a bit lost as well. We introduced each other and about an hour into the class, we realised we were both mob. We have been mates ever since.

“Zane is a big role model to me and a big brother, so we call each other Indigenous cousins.”

Zane's experience growing up in a small rural town with a predominantly Indigenous population was unique. However, finding another aspiring teacher with cultural connections was refreshing for him.

“It was a really big thing to bounce ideas off, and bounce our cultural connections off each other, and it was pretty awesome getting that in the first day,” he said.


As Conaci Scholars, Ryan and Zane will represent First Nations people during NAIDOC Week in Rome, hosted by Ambassador to the Holy See Her Excellency Chiara Porro.

“At the Australian Embassy to the Holy See, we are very excited to be welcoming Zane and Ryan to help us lead NAIDOC Week celebrations here in Rome,” Ambassador Porro said.

“The Conaci Scholarship pays homage to the role of our First Nations in the development of Australia-Holy See relations, while also strengthening the human connections that underpin them.”

In Rome, Zane hopes to tell the story of his culture through traditional Wakka Wakka dance.

“Our culture is the oldest culture in the world and sharing that with others is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Zane said.

“I’m open to any opportunity in Rome to share my culture and what I’ve learnt growing up to people who might not have even heard about it.”

Both men are also eager to walk in the shoes of their scholarship namesake and pay their respects to Conaci, who is believed to be buried in the Papal Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls.

“This is an opportunity for us to honour his legacy by going over (to Rome) and going through the journey he went through at such a young age.”


As he prepares to show the world what it means to be a Wakka Wakka man, Zane is encouraging all ACU First Nations students to take up every opportunity to pass on culture.

“If you have that opportunity 100 per cent go for it,” Zane said.

Ryan’s own advice to Indigenous university students “is to be yourself”.

“For young people growing up, especially after the Voice, being yourself and being Blak is now looked down upon from a lot of parts of society today,” Ryan said.

“Getting through uni and getting through life, just be Blak and be proud of that, be proud that the old people survived, and the culture survived, and now it’s your turn to pass that on.”

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