A unique offer from Cambridge and Oxford

More than 11,000 foreign students from outside Europe applied last year to undertake postgraduate study at Oxford University but only 3,500 received offers of a place. A similar number sent applications to Cambridge, Britain's other top university, and most also missed out.

But a young Aboriginal woman, Jessyca Hutchens, was successful in applying to both prestigious institutions. Although she says she "loved Cambridge" when she visited the university, Hutchens has opted for Oxford where she will join seven other Aborigines already studying there.

They include Rebecca Richards, an Adnyamathanha and Barngarla woman from the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, the first on her father's side of the family to graduate from high school and Australia's first Aboriginal Rhodes Scholar.

Hutchens begins a three-year doctor of philosophy or DPhil degree at Oxford's Ruskin school of art in October on a Charlie Perkins scholarship, named after the famous Aborigine who was the first to graduate from an Australian university in 1966.

A descendant of the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia, Hutchens graduated from the University of Western Australia, or UWA, with double degrees in law and arts - law with distinction and arts with first class honours in fine art history.

Among her many awards, she won the university's Graduates Association Prize in Fine Arts and the Dr Dorothy W and Dr Robert Collins Prize for Indigenous Law Students. But the offers from Oxford and Cambridge topped every prize she has won.

"It was quite a surprise getting an offer from both universities the first time I applied," she says. "I was certain I would have to apply more than once."

Stolen generation descendent

Hutchens' grandmother was one of the Stolen Generation who was removed from her Aboriginal family in the Pilbara as a child, taken to Perth and was never told who her real parents were.

Between 1910 and 1970, in one of Australia's most shameful episodes affecting Aboriginal people after their dispossession and massacres by the European invaders, thousands of children of tribal families were removed by government agencies and relocated on to church-run missions or adopted by white families. As a later historian reported:

"The Australian government literally kidnapped these children from their parents as a matter of policy. White welfare officers, often supported by police, would descend on Aboriginal camps, round up all the children, separate the ones with light-coloured skin, bundle them into trucks and take them away. If their parents protested they were held at bay by police."

It was not until 1997 that Australia's Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission reported after a two-year investigation on the full extent of this cruel treatment. The report, titled Bringing them Home, allowed Australians to learn for the first time of the extent of the kidnapping and its effect on generations of Aborigines.

When Hutchens was 15 she travelled with her grandmother to the far north as she went looking for relatives. "She was never able to discover if she had brothers and sisters. She knew her mother but not her siblings who might have also been removed.

"My mother and her sisters were also not aware when they were growing up that they came from there, it was kept from them. We still have relatives there and my grandma and some of my relations are very much involved in the community, especially relating to native title."

Hutchens, however, grew up knowing the family history and her aunt, Sally Morgan, filled in many of the gaps with a famous 1987 book My Place, about her own experience of tracing her origins.

The importance of learning and education was a big part of her family's culture, Jessyca says: "My mother was very driven and that was a big influence on me. There was a sense in my family to want to succeed, to want to change things, to achieve what my grandmother was unable to because of what happened to her."

That drive to succeed clearly affected other members of her family: earlier this year her sister Rebecca became the first indigenous student to win top prize for medicine, the Australian Medical Association prize, while her first cousin Aurora Milroy became the first indigenous student at UWA to gain first class honours in law.

The choice of art

Hutchens had hopes of becoming a lawyer and getting involved in indigenous issues of justice and land rights. But she decided she would "never be a great lawyer" and that her interests lay elsewhere, in art which had always been a big part of her life.

Last December, she and other indigenous scholars visited Oxford and Cambridge. "I was completely blown away - they are incredible universities."

That visit boosted her chances of gaining a place in both because she met the postgraduate supervisors and other academics who were able to help her with her application proposal.

"People who live in England have the chance to visit these universities but foreigners often never do, so it was very helpful if you can see them before you apply," she says.

So how did she react when she received offers from both Cambridge and Oxford: "It was a tough decision because I loved Cambridge as well, but they had offered me a one-year masters whereas Oxford offered me the full DPhil.

"That was pretty lucky because I hadn't done a masters degree first but they were willing to count my honours year as a masters equivalent. So I'm doing the full three years at Oxford."

This will not be the first time she has lived overseas. Hutchens spent two years in Berlin where she worked as an archival assistant and editor of the website Berlin Art Link.

In recent times, though, she has worked as a tutor at UWA and as a compliance officer with the Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation, a non-government native title representative organisation for the Yamatji and Pilbara regions in the north of the state.

At Oxford, she plans to write a thesis about artist-in-residency programmes around the world and the role they play in the art world. "Having a background in law has given me a good work ethic, methodology and the ability to write clearly," she says.