HDR Candidate Nathan Coffey Reflects on the ANU Summer Scholar Programme

Nathan Coffey is a Deakin University HDR Candidate and Member of the Contemporary Histories Research Group. Over the summer of 2014/5, Nathan participated in the Australian National University Summer Scholar Programme and reflects on his experience:

Over two months during the summer of 2014/2015 I had the absolute pleasure of participating in the Summer Scholar Programme up at the Australian National University in Canberra. This program was designed to give undergraduate students the opportunity to spend an extended period of time at ANU, networking, researching, and writing – I guess it was a tasting plate of what life as a historian could be like!

I was partnered up with the talented Dr Nicholas Brown, and together we embarked on an exploration of where I wanted my PhD research to go. The majority of the other students were still completing their undergraduate degrees, however as I had just finished my honours year with anticipation of starting a PhD in the near future, we both agreed that my time in Canberra would be better spent casting a wide net over my PhD area of research (the decolonisation of Papua and New Guinea) and to just read.

In all honesty, it was rather overwhelming having such a large time to spend in the archives. I had always wanted to spend time in an archive, the mystery of what I could find was always a large motivation and this particular concept was a constant excitement, but now having the time I didn’t know where to start! Diving head first into the National Archives of Australia was the only option, and once I was in, it is safe to say that I had been hooked. I was previously warned; the archives can be an addictive place for some, and I found myself loving the frantic turning of pages in a Department of External Territories folder that was sixty years old, excited for what mysteries the next page could bring.

It was remarkable to spend two months leisurely spending all day in archives, libraries, and wandering corridors of the Coombs Building – something many professors reminded me could never happen again! At the end of the two months, and after an overwhelming number of files, folders, random pieces of paper, not to mention running into Bart [Ziino] in the archives room at the NAA, my time in Canberra came to an end. The result of this incredible opportunity was a building of confidence in my research area, and a valuable head start to my PhD research. When I look back, many examples of great finds come to mind. The most memorable would happen to be stumbling across these two beautiful hand-drawn maps. These maps were a detailed scaled drawing of a town in West New Guinea, one map was drawn in 1962, the other in 1963. These maps detailed the nationality of each household, which were colour coded by hand. They displayed the movement of peopled during the Indonesian takeover of West New Guinea and what could be seen was a significant withdrawal of people of New Guinean nationality, and the influx of Indonesian residents. While these maps bear no relevance on any part of my research they still stand out as one of the most incredible finds I had during my time in Canberra.

Overall, this experience was life changing. I was able to meet some amazing people, explore my PhD topic in great detail, and really get to know what life as a researcher could be like. I learnt some valuable lessons, particularly around note taking and organisation, which not only benefited my continuing research, but also my personal and professional life as well! It was an opportunity that I highly recommend to any undergraduate student undertaking studies in history. While it is a rather strong claim to make, I can confidently say that my summer scholarship at ANU changed the way I approach research.

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