Increasing Indigenous Australian youth engagement in international development

Josh Law
Josh Law is an Woddordda and Walmajarri man who interned at Partnerships for Infrastructure as part of the New Colombo Plan Scholarship Program

Josh Law is a Woddordda and Walmajarri man from Boorloo (Perth) who interned with Partnerships for Infrastructure (P4I) at our regional program office in Bangkok from August to October 2023 under the Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan Scholarship Program.

After three months with P4I, he reflects on his time living in Thailand, what he learned while working at P4I, and how more young First Nations Australians can access these overseas opportunities through the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s commitment to embed First Nations perspectives into Australia's foreign policy.

It had always been a dream of mine to live and work overseas. After studying International Business in my undergraduate degree, and having previously worked in regional development in Australia, I was keen to explore how these two areas intersected in an international environment. But as a young First Nations Australian, I also wanted to understand how Indigenous peoples were being included in this area.

Moving overseas to gain international work experience felt like a daunting concept as an undergraduate. However, after discovering the New Colombo Plan scholarship and being nominated by my university in Melbourne, I knew I had to apply for this opportunity.

Under the scholarship, Australian undergraduates are supported to undertake up to 19 months of study, internships, and language training in the Indo-Pacific region. The initiative gives undergraduate students the opportunity to build knowledge and connections while living and working in the Indo-Pacific.

Enriching experience in Thailand

I initially applied and was accepted as a Vietnam scholar in late 2022. As my departure date drew closer and Vietnam’s borders remained closed due to COVID-19, I chose to switch to Thailand as my host country – this ended up being a blessing in disguise.

Looking back on my last 17 months studying and working in Thailand, I could not imagine being anywhere else. Thais are some of the warmest and kindest people I have ever met, and their country is full of natural beauty.

In Thailand, I completed the last two semesters of my degree on exchange at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. This allowed me to ease into living overseas, make new friends, and connect with students who share my drive and international aspirations.

Internship at Partnerships for Infrastructure

Towards the end of my studies, I was offered an internship through the Australian Embassy in Thailand and placed with the P4I program at their regional head office in Bangkok. P4I is Australia’s flagship infrastructure development cooperation initiative for Southeast Asia. It partners with eight governments across the region, including Thailand, and with ASEAN to drive sustainable, inclusive, and resilient growth through quality infrastructure.

My work at P4I centred on assisting the gender equality, disability, and social inclusion team. This team ensures P4I, through its engagement with regional partners, is fostering inclusive infrastructure planning, prioritisation and implementation.

During the 3 months I worked in the P4I office, I was involved in a range of activities that embedded Indigenous inclusive practices and perspectives into the program’s delivery. This helped me gain a well-rounded understanding of how Australian development programs, like P4I, build inclusion into their own team and delivery practices and encourage partners to do the same.  

Some of the highlights during my time at P4I were supporting the Timor-Leste delegation energy study tour to the Northern Territory, which included strong Indigenous engagement and cultural exchange. I developed an index of clean energy projects that practise sustainable Indigenous inclusion and conducted a comparative assessment of Indigenous inclusive foreign policy around the world. I also supported the development of a concept for a First Nations Australian Placement pilot program that would aim to facilitate opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to gain work experience in international development.

A key benefit of my internship at P4I and the Australian Embassy has been a refined understanding of my career interests and motivations. A large part of this was gained from simply being in the room and listening to meetings and discussions amongst development practitioners and government representatives from Australia, Thailand and the region. For most young First Nations Australians, however, this opportunity is out of reach.

Embedding First Nations perspectives into Australia's foreign policy

The opportunity for me to undertake an internship with the Australian Embassy and P4I arose due to the Australian Government’s push to place more First Nations Australians in diplomatic and international development positions – a sector that has significant under-representation of Indigenous people.

Through its Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade seeks to create more pathways for Indigenous Australians to gain overseas experience, specifically in the Indo-Pacific. The agenda commits to maximising international opportunities for Indigenous peoples and deploying First Nations Australian diplomats to advance Australia’s national interests.

While DFAT-supported programs, like P4I, have recruited Indigenous Australians, internships through the New Colombo Plan are another avenue to advance Indigenous engagement. Many Indigenous students on these scholarships already have an interest in studying and working abroad and would be a great asset to our development cooperation and other areas of foreign policy engagement.

Increasing First Nations Australian engagement

The New Colombo Plan initiative is an invaluable resource, but currently, too few Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples reach tertiary education and nomination for the scholarship. In the 2022, I was one of only four First Nations Australians in a cohort of over 120 scholars. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders comprise 3% of the Australian population, or around 800,000 people. 1 However, less than 2% of First Nations Australians hold an undergraduate degree, 2 and even fewer pursue postgraduate qualifications. Consequently, very few First Nations Australians receive a New Colombo Plan scholarship.  

To overcome this barrier, structural inequalities must be removed to increase Indigenous equality of opportunity. More programs that target Indigenous university students who want to undertake international study and work experience are needed. Many students may have never considered gaining international experience or even know how to go about doing so. International options and avenues should be better explained, with interested Indigenous students given a range of support to access these opportunities.

In conjunction with this, in-country support should be provided for students who pursue study abroad or who undertake overseas internships to ensure they are not overwhelmed at the prospect of moving overseas alone. Many young Indigenous people, specifically those living in more regional areas, have had limited or no travel overseas. This needs to be recognised, with interpersonal and cultural support provided to help them manage their time away from home.

A range of smaller programs that offer remote work experience, internships or study tours should be created to give a broader range of Indigenous students a chance to work in the sector. Initiatives like P4I intersect with several Australian Government agencies across energy, transport, public financial management and telecommunications, supporting these agencies to expand their international engagement. Fostering these connections can provide further avenues for young Indigenous people to gain experience in international development by being part of government-to-government initiatives from within Australia.

Insights and takeaways

I urge other Indigenous young people who aspire to work in international development or diplomacy to explore these interests. Enquire with your university, seek out opportunities to gain overseas experience, and do research to find out how you can start working in and around the sector.

I highly recommend the New Colombo Plan as one avenue to gain international experience, and to consider internships at local and international organisations and projects in the wider Indo-Pacific region.

As the first Indigenous intern at the Australian Embassy in Bangkok and on P4I, the value that this opportunity has provided me is immeasurable. I am immensely grateful to have had the experience of working on a program like P4I and I hope that it is the first of many more fruitful internship experiences for young Indigenous Australians.  



This publication has been funded by the Australian Government through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Any third party views or recommendations included in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Government or indicate its commitment to a particular course of action. The Australian Government accepts no responsibility or liability for any damage, loss or expense incurred as a result of the reliance on information contained in this publication. 

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