Why I chose to study arts

09 May 2022

profile image of Akala Newman

Akala Newman

Actor, Assistant Producer, Artist Educator
Bachelor of Arts (Hons), University of Sydney
Majored in Theatre and Performance Studies/Art History
Graduated in 2021

Studying for her HSC, Akala Newman was worried she wouldn’t get into her arts degree. ‘I love academia, but it doesn’t come naturally to me,’ she says. ‘I’m not built that way.’

But the Wiradjuri/Gadigal woman worked hard to get a good ATAR, supported by her ‘headstrong’ parents, and was happy and surprised when she received an offer from the University of Sydney. ‘My dad was the first Aboriginal man to go to Western Sydney University to study business and economics. He really inspired me to persevere and go after what I wanted.’

Broaden your horizons

Akala, an actor, dancer and singer-songwriter, decided to defer her Bachelor of Arts degree for 12 months and pursue her passions at acting school. She also travelled extensively overseas during her gap year, something she highly recommends.

‘At the end of Year 12, I didn’t know who I was, and even though I’d accepted an offer at uni I was really struggling to find out what I wanted to do,’ she says. ‘If you can’t travel overseas, you could explore your own backyard. Or just take some time off – school’s hard! You need a break and an opportunity to meet new people.’

At acting school Akala realised that many of the plays and performances she studied were not representative of who she was. She became interested in why people chose to act and the power dynamics at play: it was then she knew for sure that going on to do an arts degree was the right move.

‘It was an opportunity to think deeply and critically about the issues I was seeing, to strengthen my understanding of the world and find out where dominant forms of knowledge come from.’

Find your place at uni

Akala can remember how daunting it was walking onto the university campus on her first day. ‘But as soon as I got into my first lecture – I think it was Performance Studies 101 – I loved it. It was like, this is my place, this is where I’m meant to be.’

While exploring her interests in other subjects such as gender studies and art history, Akala built her support network by joining the drama society and meeting people at the university’s Koori Centre. She became the First Nations Student Representative to help build a better sense of reconciliation on campus.

‘It was important for me that the next Indigenous kid that walks onto campus could see the Indigenous flag up and feel like they are at home.’

Akala quickly realised that the texts they were studying in her course were written primarily through a Western lens. ‘My degree encouraged me to want to shed light between Western understanding and Indigenous epistemology,’ she says. ‘I wanted to make a change, to write through a First Nations lens and build a bridge between those two things. And when I was at uni I met so many like-minded people who wanted to work towards the same thing.’

Take every opportunity to kickstart your career

Now a graduate, Akala works as a higher-degree researcher on the National Indigenous Performing Arts Initiative at UNSW. She also divides her time between many roles in the arts industry, as Assistant Producer, Moogahlin Performing Arts; Artist Educator at the Museum of Contemporary Art; and Intimacy Coordinator at Key Intimate Scenes.

While her degree helped her find pathways to the jobs she’s in now, Akala says it was vital to network and take every opportunity that came her way. She became a producer at Moogahlin, for example, while doing placements at theatre companies for her Rehearsal Studies course. She met Moogahlin's co-founder, Dr Lize-Mare Syron, who read Akala’s honours thesis and later invited her to become part of the National Indigenous Performing Arts Initiative.

‘I told myself I never want to work in a position and not love it,’ she says. ‘Every job that I’ve taken is because I want to do it. I still don’t really know exactly where I want to be, but I know it’s somewhere in the arts. If I’m saying yes to all these other experiences, it’s a good way to eventually find the path I want to take.’

For those thinking of pursuing study or a career in the creative arts, Akala advises to be sure of your reasons from the outset. ‘I would ask yourself, why am I doing this? Because I’m not going to sugar coat it, it’s hard. Only do it if you love it, or if you see something happening in the world that troubles you and you want to change it,’ she says.

‘Take every opportunity to find your path. Everything happens for a reason – I’m a big believer in that. Go where the energy flows. Trust in yourself and your gut instinct to make that choice.’

Thinking of studying arts?

Arts is flexible degree that can prepare you for a career in a variety of industries and roles. You can design your dream degree by combining it with another course, or use it as a 'launching pad' to postgraduate options such as psychology, MBA, Juris Doctor, and many others.

Want to know more? High school careers adviser Kate Poppett shares some advice on the exciting opportunities and potential pitfalls of an arts degree.