A university of the people: the 200-year story of Parramatta campus

A trip down memory lane as we continue to rebuild, immortalise and celebrate the history and culture of Western Sydney University.

If you’ve ever stepped foot on Parramatta South campus, chances are you’ve seen a few historical landmarks. Mainly the old orphan school building, which usually has a ton of fancy vintage cars parked outside when an event is happening. Though for most students (thanks to COVID-19) chances are, you’ve been online for the majority if not all of your degree.

So, I hope this interactive story makes up for the lack of face-to-face interaction and provides a source of comfort and curiosity for all of you returning next semester. Plus, a few fun facts up your sleeve don’t hurt if you need some small talk conversation starters about the weather.

WSU celebrated 30 years in 2019 (a young and proud overachiever). However, the university itself is a holder of memories built over two hundred years of history and community impact, deeply rooted in the region’s exceptional development and prosperity.

“Our successes and aspirations reflect those of the region and its people. Not only is Western Sydney University a world-class teaching and research institution, but it is also a thought leader; a knowledge and employment generator; and a catalyst for the region’s economic and social prosperity,” said vice-chancellor and president, professor Barney Glover to the WSU News Centre in April 2019.

10 things you might not know about WSU by Sarah Cupitt. Source: W’SUP Spring Edition 2019.

The history of the Parramatta South campus

The Female Orphan School building has witnessed some of Australia’s most profound societal shifts. Over the two centuries that this hidden treasure has stood on the banks of the Parramatta River, the structure has influenced thousands of lives. The structure is of enormous significance to Australia’s social history, being both one of the few large public structures that survived the early colonial period and additionally is Australia’s oldest three-story building, predating even Hyde Park Barracks.

Parramatta South is home to many historical interactions over the past 200 years as a place and keeper of collective memories. Infographic: Sarah Cupitt.

Its original purpose was to house, educate, and train Sydney’s “orphaned” children. It then functioned as a psychiatric hospital, and its varied usage over the next 100 years represented society’s increasing understanding of mental illness. By the mid-1980s, the philosophies that the building represented had become obsolete, and the structure had fallen into neglect and decay.

Watch: If Those Walls Could Talk – A History of the former Rydalmere Hospital (Sept 1999)

Acknowledging the building’s historical value, the University of Western Sydney (now Western Sydney University) began a series of restoration work in 2000. The Female Orphan School was resurrected as the university’s campus centerpiece for Parramatta. In addition, the Whitlam Institute, which presently inhabits the building, is dedicated to preserving it as an open, public, and democratic environment for future generations to admire and enjoy.

“Being able to study at the Parramatta South campus, knowing that there is so much history there, makes me feel honoured. I feel a sense of pride that I have been able to contribute to that history and culture,” says third-year Bachelor of Arts student Lauren Rainey.

The Whitlam Institute: facilitating bold and transformative discussions

The Whitlam Government passed 203 bills in its first year alone, more than any other Federal Government had achieved in a single year. Not only did Gough Whitlam transform Australia’s laws and institutions, but he also changed the way the country views and defines itself.

Leanne Smith has led the Whitlam Institute as its director for the last four years, having previously held the role of associate director since March 2017. The result has seen a renewed strategic direction for the Institute, fulfilling Gough’s wish that it would “… help the great and continuing work of building a more equal, open, tolerant and independent Australia”. Under Leanne’s leadership, the Institute has produced policy research (including with international partners) on topics from access to education and disability discrimination, to the protection of Indigenous cultural heritage and international best practice in sustainable development goals implementation.

“What I’ve worked hard to do, is to connect our local communities and local issues of concern to national policy debates, for example by hosting the 2021 Refugee Alternatives Conference …

We have worked with WSU students offering internships, placements, consultancies and volunteer opportunities around our research, exhibitions and events and the incredible Prime Ministerial archive collection at the Whitlam Institute,” said Leanne Smith.

Embedded video of Leanne talking about the history of the building https://youtu.be/WkSKsnOrJr0

“Last year we opened a beautiful reading room, named in honour of our Distinguished Fellow, The Hon Susan Ryan – this room is intended to bring students and scholars into the Female Orphan School where we work to learn about the Whitlam legacy,” says Smith.

Take a digital look around Australia’s oldest three-storey building here.

At WSU students and staff are proud to have such historically significant campuses, including South Parramatta, where the Female Orphan School is located. For Leanne, bringing that history to life is a real joy for staff and volunteers.

“One of the most wonderful moments during my time as director was hosting the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Dr Michelle Bachelet, as our 2019 Whitlam Oration guest speaker. Dr Bachelet has been an inspiration to me since we worked together at the United Nations, and it was an honour to have here with us in Sydney, honouring Gough Whitlam,” she said.

Photos supplied by Sally Tsoutas

Leanne will be leaving the Whitlam Institute to take up the position of chief executive of the Australian Human Rights Commission, with her final day as the 29th of November. However, she will continue to have a relationship with the University as an Adjunct Professor at the School of Law.

Adjunct Professor Eric Sidoti will take up the role of interim director of the Whitlam Institute whilst recruitment for the substantive position is progressed. As well as being adjunct professor at the university’s Institute for Culture and Society, Professor Sidoti is a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow and was previously the director of the Whitlam Institute between 2007 and 2017.

Expressions of Interest are now being received for Whitlam Legacy Essays by November 28.

From bird to shield, blue to red – Western’s courageous rebrand

The University of Western Sydney rebranded in August 2015. It was the first identity shift in over a decade. WSU’s makeover symbolised the university’s commitment to its community, putting Western Sydney first. Combined with a more relevant brand attitude and voice for the upcoming wave of students and an international audience, the aim was to reflect the changing landscape of Western Sydney, which is now the country’s fastest expanding region, with an enormous amount of investment in infrastructure, innovation, and the arts.

Some students started a social media campaign called “Save the Bird” in an attempt to save the then-UWS logo, which cost a whopping $20 million. The campaign resulted in students wearing blue ribbons in support of keeping the bird, others signing a petition with over 2500 signatures, and finally – bold students taking to Twitter the frustration of zero student consultation.

Read More: University Of Western Sydney Spending $20M On “WSU” Rebrand, Bird-Less Logo

It’s from this point that the “student voice” changed at Western, not only in terms of diverse student leadership and thought – but also the rebrand of Cruwsible to W’SUP News (the student publication of Western Sydney University).

For third-year nursing student and SRC international student representative Loore Muravu, The Whitlam institute has shaped her values and taught her to be culturally aware and to value diversity and people’s opinions.

“I believe diverse student representation and leadership helps to give students a voice because it breaks the silence and allows students to feel recognised and appreciated. For instance, as an international student like me, I never thought that I could raise my concerns and be heard until I became part of the SRC team and learnt about my rights as a student,” says Loore.

A university of the people

Students, staff, and volunteers hold memories of the beloved Parramatta Campus before the COVID-19 lockdown; these are some key moments of inspiration to drive change, leadership, and community when you return to campus next semester to build your story.

Crystal Ram (SRC ethnocultural representative) is inspired by the new generation of creators, innovators and leaders; having a strong foundation enables newcomers to grow and fuels ideas, “In Australia, we are so fortunate to even has access to tertiary education, when I reflect and recall what individuals like my grandparents and mum went through it gives me the motivation for continual improvement everywhere I go,” she says.

Jacki Montgomery (Director of Academic Program – Creative Industries, Communication, Screen Media) echoes the culture at our university for innovation and collaboration.

“We are so fortunate to have one of the most diverse cultural cohorts of any university in Australia. Our students bring many different perspectives to their studies, and we see wonderful collaborations and expressions of culture in their creative outputs,” said Jacki Montgomery.

Next, we have Razin Polara, who says studying at the WSU Parramatta South campus is one of the best experiences he’s ever had. He’s proud of the development of student clubs that organise events and activities that have impacted the student community in a broader range – additionally as the SRC Parramatta South Representative (no bias to the campus of course) and a leader of several student clubs, he believes that driven young students will make Australian youth stronger and powerful –  and bring change to the WSU community.

“Studying here for four years, I have made many incredible memories: the chit-chat at the Oliver-Brown cafe before lectures, challenging mates in video games and playing Football in the field are some of the unforgettable memories. From this, I can say that Parramatta is one of my favourite campuses,” says Razin.

Finally, we have the director of W’SUP News, Ishmamul Haque, who’s studying a double degree consisting of a Bachelor of Information and Communication Technology and a Bachelor of Business majoring in accounting. He’s had the honour to be an advisor to the Vice Chancellor as a member of the Vice Chancellor’s International Student Advisory Committee and has worked in different roles across the Department of Project Management, Student Experience and the School of Nursing and Midwifery.

“I think the best memories at Parramatta all revolve around the many events I have attended on campus since my first year. My particular favourite was the trivia night which was my first time at a trivia and my very first experience of interacting with a person in drag. The make your own taco bar should have become a permanent fixture at Parra South!”

“The people is what makes WSU. It hosts some of the most inclusive people and organisations I have come across as a student. I have left every on and off-campus event with more friends than I had started off with. The range of perspectives and the collective experiences of the people I have interacted with, have crafted the essence of my personality as an adult.

We have the most multicultural student population in Sydney as well as students coming from low-ses backgrounds, refugees and first in family to study at uni. The people at WSU, the staff, the students and all the friendly faces whose names I am yet to discover, will be missed the most when I graduate,” says Ishmamul.

Western Sydney has so much to teach Australia and the world and this University has an important role to play in making sure their voices are heard,” says Leanne Smith, director of the Whitlam Institute.

If you want to share your student experience with W’SUP News, reach out to the team via wsup@westernsydney.edu.au or check out the submissions page for more information

Published: W’SUP News

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