The Wentworth Medal was first established in 1854 from a gift of £200 from William Charles Wentworth and initially awarded to the best essay in English prose.
Today, the medal, open to students across the University, is worth $20,000 and rewards an outstanding essay addressing a nominated question.
In 2021, that question was:
The University of Sydney occupies Aboriginal ancestral Lands that have never been ceded. The Lands have generated innovation, knowledge, and stories for over 60,000 years.
Drawing on research and your own experience, analyse how the contemporary University environment enables and supports conversations about culture and the traditional Lands upon which its campuses stand today.
Janek's winning entry was entitled, ‘The Constellations Change Rethinking Cadigal Land and the University of Sydney'.
Sydney Law School students have won the Wentworth Medal two years in a row, with Georgia Reid winning in 2020.
We asked Janek about winning the Wentworth Medal and his experience as a Bachelor of Laws student at Sydney Law School.
Winning was a shock, an honour and a moment to reflect: on the many thousands of First Nations people who have been denied education and opportunity by a system that treats them with contempt; a system in which Sydney University has been complicit.
The Wentworth Medal is part of that complicity. It was established by a gift from William Charles Wentworth, an explorer, lawyer and politician, who called First Nations people "savages" and called for their genocide. For the prize that bears his name, addressing First Nations dispossession was bound to be difficult. The 2021 question was a good first step. But whether intentionally or not, the question struck me as loaded, because it asked not whether but how the University 'supports and enables conversations about traditional Land'. It seemed to presume that the University really was a 'supporter and enabler' – and to direct attention away from just how much remains to be done.
I wrote my submission to suggest ways the University could improve its relationship with the land it occupies and the people from whom that land was taken. I also wanted to show my respect for the wealth of First Nations stories – past and present – that are embedded in this university and encourage readers to listen to those stories, as told by the First Nations people who lived them and are living them.
I started law at Sydney for all the wrong reasons: because I liked talking, because the law seemed endlessly prestigious, and because where else would I study other than in a sandstone cloister?
Once I arrived, the law school showed me why law is really worth studying: not only to learn an important set of rules, but to enter a tradition that applies history, textual interpretation, logic, politics, social science and biography to the tragedies and comedies of human life.
Sydney law, at its best, immerses students in that tradition like nowhere else in Australia, and gives us the tools to think about it, extend it, criticise it and where necessary change it. The exercise is intellectually bracing, all the more so because of how real its applications are.
A law school is the people you meet, and in that sense, my time at Sydney law has been charmed.
There were more brilliant minds in my cohort than I could count, many of whom I am lucky to call friends.
My teachers have shown me all a legal education can be, none more so than Professor David Rolph, a model of learning and good pedagogy, who gave the standout lectures of my time at Sydney University and who is largely responsible for my induction into the cult of media law.
I also spent several years of my degree writing for Richard Ackland's Justinian, a gossipy magazine about law, lawyers, their triumphs and their excesses. This tumbledown corner of legal journalism is a constant delight: it taught me that the most important force in the law is, again, its people, who should rarely be taken as seriously as they might like. Once or twice, I even managed to report on a crop of Sydney Law School dramas.
I have just spent an academic year at the University of Oxford, where I completed a master's degree in classics, my other discipline. I am increasingly interested in legal history and especially ancient legal systems, a kind of classico-legal synthesis, which I will probably pursue in future academic research. First, though, I will spend next year working as a judge's associate.
Finding joy in the law means you are more likely to succeed, at university and in your work.
Don't do it for the prestige or the money (neither is in ready supply): ask yourself if you like the law and the kind of work it involves. Remember a law firm is not the only way to work with the law; and not necessarily the best way to work with the law. Find your niche or niches and start learning them: you can be a generalist, but it helps to be a specialist first. Don't neglect the personalities of the law, or its politics: judges, lawyers, legal philosophers and legislators are humans whose motivations are not only fascinating but help to explain what the law is. Remember that law is an intellectual discipline, with special ways of thinking and problems waiting to be solved: it is not just a way to get a job.