The two of us

Larteasha Griffen and Laurie Cowled Former UTS student scholarship recipient and current SBS journalist Larteasha Griffen’s career has taken off thanks to the support of scholarship donor Laurie Cowled.

Larteasha Griffen’s first year as a journalism student at UTS was tough. While other students sat in class surrounded by their textbooks and laptops, she’d have just a notepad and pen. Her classmates prepared top-notch PowerPoint presentations; hers were done on the library computer.

“I was from the country and Aboriginal – I was different already and to not have those things was so intimidating,” says Griffen, who was surviving on just $50 a week after paying rent.

Enter Laurie Cowled, a retired banker who grew up on a sheep farm near Cootamundra in NSW’s Riverina district. In 2007, she set up the Cowled Foundation to help underprivileged regional or Indigenous young women complete their post-school studies. So far, she has helped almost 50 students at universities and schools in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria, in disciplines ranging from engineering to ballet, neuroscience and design.

“I want to help someone who’s going to do something wonderful for Australia,” says Cowled, 82, who moved to the Sunshine Coast after a 35-year banking career in Sydney. “I want to produce another [NSW Governor and Professor] Marie Bashir or [Governor-General] Quentin Bryce. Both were country women.”

A world of opportunity

At UTS, the Laurie Cowled Scholarship is awarded each year to an Indigenous female student. Cowled picked UTS after talking to a friend’s daughter, Dean of the Faculty of Law Professor Jill McKeough, about the university’s Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning. Larteasha Griffen (née Smith) was the first recipient, in 2008, enabling her to complete the second and third years of her Bachelor of Arts in Communication (Journalism). The scholarship, worth about $20,000 a year, paid for her accommodation at UTS’s Gumal Ngurang Residence, as well as textbooks, excursions – and a laptop.

Freed from worrying about how she would feed herself, Griffen was able to take the first steps towards her dream job as a presenter on SBS’s Living Black program. During her university course, she worked as a volunteer at Gadigal Koori radio and prepared some segments for ABC radio.

After graduating at the end of 2009, she spent a year at SBS as a production co-ordinator for the Living Black program, which led to an SBS cadetship last year. Now, aged 23, she’s travelling Australia as an SBS video journalist, collecting stories for Living Black, including one from her hometown of Kempsey on NSW’s north coast, on the revival of the Dunghutti language in local schools and pre-schools.

“I love it, meeting new people and hearing their stories,” says Griffen by phone from Townsville, where she is doing segments on youth crime and chroming (the inhalation of chemical products to get high). “I always wanted to work for Living Black and I’m really passionate about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues.” That passion comes partly from her mother, Rhonda Smith, who urged her daughter to never give up, and partly from discrimination when she was growing up, such as security staff following her in shops and demanding to see the receipts of any purchases.

“I already had all these dreams and goals, but [the scholarship] made it possible,” says Griffen, although she rejects the notion that she’s now a role model for other young Indigenous women. “I don’t want to be a big head. But I hope people can look at me and say ‘if she did it I can do it too’.”

Philanthropy in practice

Cowled’s inspiration for setting up the foundation came from a conversation with her late husband, Ron Macnamara, when the couple, who have no children, decided that whoever died second would leave the estate to charity. When Macnamara died in 2005, Cowled decided she wanted to start straight away, so she could follow the careers of those she helped.

“When I was a girl I wanted to do all sorts of things but Bethungra [the closest town] couldn’t provide anyone to teach me and neither could Cootamundra,” says Cowled, who left school after her intermediate certificate (today’s equivalent of year 10) and started working in a bank.

Her foundation has so far helped three students at UTS, plus 45 others at various institutions. A scholarship in memory of her sister, Ruth, a stage designer who died aged 25, has supported nine students at the National Institute of Dramatic Art. Three students at the Australian Ballet School and another three at Neuroscience Research Australia have received Cowled Foundation scholarships, and Cowled also helps female year 12 students from her old high school in Cootamundra who wish to go on to tertiary education.

Outside the foundation, Cowled donated a block of land to the Queensland University of Technology to sell, and the proceeds cover a scholarship for a Masters of Nursing student, a two-week Harvard leadership course for alumni of the business school and financial assistance to cash-strapped first years. “It’s made me feel 100 years younger, and joyous,” says Cowled, who is having morning tea the day after our interview with some of the girls she helps. “It’s really thrilling to see a young woman able to do what she wants to do and flourishing.”

Story by Lucinda Schmidt
Photography by Anthony Geernaert