A senior Aboriginal woman from the Illawarra district of New South Wales, traditional lands of the Wadi Wadi people, Barbara was born on the Kemblawarra reserve at Port Kembla. As a mature age student she graduated from the University of Newcastle with a triple major in English Literature. She later went on to teach Aboriginal Studies at the University of New South Wales, a position she held for five years. Following this she took up a position at Wollongong University and was eventually appointed to as a Senior Honorary Research Fellow in the Faculty of Law at Wollongong University (UoW), an appointment she has filled since 1999. Nicholson taught Aboriginal students in State Correctional Facilities and has undertaken casual consultative social research with independent social research companies. In 2014, Nicholson was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws at Wollongong University.
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