Tuesdays and Fridays are Rikisha Phineasa’s days off from uni, but you’ll likely still find her at the James Cook University campus in Townsville either sitting outside studying in the open spaces or huddled away in the Indigenous Learning Centre getting on top of assessments.
With Christmas and her sister’s Amily’s milestone 21st birthday in sight, she has so much to look forward to, but remains focussed on completing her last Semester of 2022 – her second year studying a double degree of Bachelor of Law and Bachelor of Arts on a scholarship from Cape York Leaders Program.
Her passion for law began after a conversation with her Aka (grandmother in Torres Strait). “It was an accumulation of all these little experiences, but a conversation with my Aka about living under the act, and coming to the realisation that it was only two to three generations before me, sparked my desire for a law degree and proper change. As an Indigenous person, you are born with barriers and I want to be in a position where people listen to me, sign off on legal documents I believe are right and do something tangible for my people.”
Rikisha’s roots are from Saibai Island, Dauan Island, Murray Island and Mabuiag. She takes great pride in her background and recently addressed senior high school students in a speech at the Indigenous Constitutional Convention on her journey so far. She remembers sitting in the same audience five years ago listening to uni students tell their story. In her speech, Rikisha emphasised the need for a long-term vision.
“Sometimes you can get caught up in the now but taking the time to stop and think about five years from now helps me make better decisions and gets me through. Having a clear direction and planning ahead helps give clarity to the bigger picture and gives reason to those hard days of study.”
Although the law student has been travelling well, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. She recalls the new ATAR system in Year 12 and adjusting to her first year of uni as challenging times. “Uni, study, friendships, relationships were difficult to prioritise. Family support and academic discipline is what got me through. Mum and dad pushed me to do my best and instilled this in me from a young age.”
She manages the balancing act well. Side gigs, as she calls them, helps her have a more holistic approach to her studies and gives her a sense of purpose as to why she is studying Law. Between gym, church and family time, she’s also a JCU Indigenous Ambassador and a Pass Leader Mentor – two roles she gained because of her high grades and leadership ability. Rikisha believes her mentor, Andrea Moffatt – Senior Associate from Allens National Law Firm – gives the best advice.
“I would tell her about how I struggle with juggling things, time management and she said to me, ‘learn to get better at it because the juggling never ends no matter what you do in life.’ That stuck with me.” Andrea mentors Rikisha on her legal career, networking, getting through the hurdles of uni and seeking out opportunities. “Mentors are extremely important. My biggest advice for young people would be to get yourself a mentor. Get someone in your field and learn from their experiences to improve yourself and see them as a living testament to where you are trying to get to in the end.” Rikisha recognises what habits are weighing her down and is constantly evolving as she learns more about how to master the juggling act.
Things go full circle with CYLP. I had mentors to look up to and now I get to do the same and give back to the program as a mentor whenever I can.”
She reminisces about her experience participating in the Cape York Leaders Program (CYLP) Next Steps Conference two years ago. This annual conference is instrumental in helping CYLP Academic Leaders navigate a path after their secondary education. She fondly speaks of Joel Murgha, a Tertiary Leader at the time, providing an insightful look at studying law. Joel has since gone on to become the first lawyer from his hometown of Yarrabah and is now a practising lawyer. He was a major factor behind Rikisha applying for law – a real-world example of what she could achieve for herself.
“CYLP has been an important part of my experience so far, in particular the financial support, which takes away some of the stresses of everyday life. This support pushes me to excel in my studies. The whole program is a world of support from social aspects, check-ins, give-back programs and knowing that the team behind the scenes genuinely want you to succeed.
“Things go full circle with CYLP. I had mentors to look up to and now I get to do the same and give back to the program as a mentor whenever I can.”
Rikisha doesn’t have far to look for further role models of her own. “My mum and dad embodied hard work and faith, my two grandmothers have shown me how to be a strong black woman in this world, Andrea and Joel are on opposite ends of my degree and gives visibility to my dream, Assan Sam and my sister Amily Phineasa who although are in a different faculty to me studying medicine still provide study advice.”
Rikisha has an unwavering resolve to do her best. “I think studying hard and getting the grades you worked for is the way to earn the respect of your name.” Her parents Rick and Sharon Phineasa are both alumni of the Cape York Leaders Program and Rikisha couldn’t be prouder to be following behind them and making a name for herself.
Rikisha has just been named Indigenous Law Student of the Year at James Cook University, North Queensland. In addition, she received a Holding Reding Scholarship that gives her exposure in Lawyers Weekly and networking opportunities, including work experience in the Holding Reding law firm in Cairns.
Prior to these two remarkable achievements, Rikisha also received a letter of commendation from Law and Business in her first year, followed by an interview for a piece on the late Eddie Mabo. “He is such an inspiration for me, I don’t think people understand the lengths this man went to. He went to the High Courts of Australia, that’s the apex. He studied here at JCU Townsville as well and was a massive influence as to why I decided to study here."
Rikisha is determined to use her heart and strong mind for the betterment of her people.
“I want to be a lawyer that supports change.”
Want to know more? Click below for more information on the Cape York Leaders Program.