Nungalinya College set to reopen after COVID-19 pause

Northern Territory theological college has used the time away from face-to-face learning productively

By Stephen Cauchi

June 4 2020
Technicians Lucy Rogers and Jacob Joseph recording Nungalinya principal Ben van Gelderen’s chapel service, which was later posted to Facebook.

Nungalinya College in Darwin, a theological college for Indigenous Australians, has been especially hard-hit by COVID-19 as it’s been unable to offer online courses to its students.

COVID-19 could have been devastating to the Northern Territory had it spread, but its successful suppression means the College is set to shortly reopen.

COVID-19 was an especially troubling development for the Territory given the death rate from the virus among the world’s Indigenous people.

But the response from the Federal and Territory Governments to the virus has given the College hope of a June reopening. While there have been COVID-19 cases in the Territory, there has been no community transmission as yet.

“We’re very happy that the Northern Territory Government actually acted pretty wisely and pretty simply and they put in the travel ban essentially quite early,” said Nungalinya’s principal, Ben van Gelderen. “They know that if it had got into a community it would almost certainly be a devastating death rate, just the factors of elderly people, vulnerable people.”

Indigenous communities “actually felt good about that – they’d been a bit looked after”, he said.

“We feel really blessed. No-one’s passed away in the Territory from this virus, it didn’t get into remote communities, so everyone’s just really thankful about that to be honest.”

Nungalinya students are currently at home in their remote communities. The Territory Government is planning to allow travel to and from these communities from 18 June, said Mr van Gelderen.

“We’re looking like that’s pretty likely now so June 18 would be the time when the communities can open up. That’s almost the end of this term, so we will then look to start classes in term three.”

Students were sent back home from the College around 20 March, but unfortunately the College wasn’t in a position to offer online learning, he said.

“Online is problematic for a couple of major reasons. One is that people don’t necessarily have the access to laptops, iPads, etc. Internet service speeds are an issue as well.”

The second problem is the nature of the courses. “A lot of our courses are actually … literacy and numeracy courses which we teach through the scriptures, so it’s a bit of a Catch-22 to see someone doing a foundation literacy course by themselves. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Certificate-level courses in music, media and discipleship, and Christian ministry and theology are also offered.

The College considered sending out workbooks so students could learn in their communities, he said. However, students enrolled at Nungalinya for “the whole pastoral experience” and so that idea was abandoned.

“We thought we’d just wait, to be honest, for all of these factors combined.

“Some of the things we’re doing at the moment are really quite exciting. We’re putting up our Facebook chapel devotion message each morning … people are watching that and sharing that so that’s encouraging.”

Financially, the College has applied for the JobKeeper allowance and may dip into its savings. The College Board has long had savings in case government funding was halted, said Mr van Gelderen.

“If it did turn we have to eat into that this year then that’s what has to happen, but hopefully it won’t be too much like that,” he said.

Staff took two weeks’ enforced annual leave around March and April, and since then have been occupying themselves with a mix of project work for the College, including works on the grounds and library, teaching work and professional development.

Australian Kriol – an English-based creole language popular among Indigenous Australians – is currently being taught to staff, for example.

“We’re doing some work on our grounds, we’re doing some work in the library – we don’t have a librarian – and we’re doing some work on textile and design. So people are still busy and working and it’s all good for the college overall. We’re just waiting for when we can get out students back.”

Students at Nungalinya come mostly from remote Northern Territory communities. Founded in 1973, it was originally an Anglican/Methodist partnership. It was founded just prior to Cyclone Tracy, which “knocked the rudimentary buildings down”, said Mr van Gelderen.

The College is now run by the Anglican, Uniting and Roman Catholic churches, with funding as well from the Northern Territory Government.

It’s the only theological college in the Territory and it caters only to Indigenous Australians.

“There’s a lot of balancing [with] the different churches,” said Mr van Gelderen. “Trying to work together can be a balancing thing at times.”