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Executive Team

Chris Ronan

President & Advocacy Director

Chris is the CEO of Country Universities Centre and has worked in the higher education and not-for-profit sectors across the United States, New Zealand, and Australia in a range of management and consultancy roles. He has also worked on national research projects with the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education and the University of South Australia in Regional, Rural and Remote higher education policy, student equity, widening participation and rural student transitions.

Sam Avitaia

Vice-President & Administration Director

Working in the Australian tertiary education sector for over 25 years, Sam is the manager of the University of Wollongong’s regional campus in Bega NSW. Sam grew up in the Bega Valley and has a passion for providing education opportunities to rural people from diverse backgrounds.  She is also the manager of the Bega Valley Innovation Hub and most recent paper is “Having a yarn: From one rural student to another, practical in-school programs demystifying university and enabling student progression”.

Adam Gowen

Director, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Engagement
SPERA Treasurer

Adam is a Wiradjuri man with cultural connections to Yuin Country and Peoples. He is passionate about Indigenous ways of being, relating, and knowing. He holds a first class honours degree in Indigenous Studies (UOW), and a Graduate Certificate in Theology from Indigenous perspectives (University of Divinity/Whitley College/NAIITS). Adam is the Centre Manager of Country Universities Centre (CUC) Southern Shoalhaven, based in Ulladulla. Adam also sits on the board of two other Not-For-Profit organisations and volunteers as an Advanced Firefighter (AF) with the RFS.

John Guenther

Research Director

John Guenther is the managing editor of AIJRE, and researcher with 20 years’ experience. In the last 10 years he has intentionally focused on issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in remote parts of Australia. He led the Remote Education Systems project under the CRC for Remote Economic Participation (2011-2016) and is currently the Research Leader for Education and Training with the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, based in Darwin, Northern Territory. John is a leading academic in the field of remote education and has published widely on his findings, often under the banner of ‘Red Dirt Thinking’.

Natalie Nelmes


Natalie Nelmes became the Director of Geraldton Universities Centre (GUC) in 2015 after serving for five years as the Centre’s Special Projects Manager. Living and working across remote and regional WA for more than 30 years, Natalie works with the firm belief that communication and collaboration can open doors to new ways of thinking and finding solutions to community issues.  It’s exactly the approach GUC took in establishing the first not for profit regional university centre in Australia. 

Sasha Peppinck


Sasha Peppinck is the Outreach and Participation Coordinator, Student Equity at The University of Western Australia (UWA). Her careers role in a large Victorian regional secondary school lead to developing and delivering equity programs in regional Victoria within the tertiary sector. Joining UWA in 2017, she maintained her passion in equity across metropolitan, regional, rural, and remote school communities, coordinating student-centred programs aimed at empowering participants to pursue their post-school ambitions, utilising a community-focused and partnership-driven approach.

Danielle Keenan

General Executive Member – Conference

Danielle is the Director of Student Services for the Country Universities Centre (CUC), where her focus is on enhancing the student experience and fostering inclusive learning environments. With a keen interest in student success and growth, she collaborates closely with CUC Centres, developing innovative approaches that empower students both academically and personally. Danielle is also the Chair of the Regional University Centre Network Advisory and executive committee member for the Far West Country Education Foundation.

Sonal Singh

Public Officer

Sonal Singh is the Manager Student Equity at University of Technology Sydney at the Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion. Sonal’s research is focussed on equity in education outcomes, culturally inclusive research methodologies and student equity practice in Australia. She is also a long-term executive member of EPHEA – Equity Practitioners In Higher Education Australasia. Her latest paper is  ‘Making the invisible, visible: A 21st century approach to tertiary preparation, attainment and access for student equity

Kylie Austin

General Executive Member – Equity

Dr Kylie Austin is currently the Associate Director, Student Equity and Success at University of Wollongong. She is also the current President for Equity Practitioners in Higher Education Australasia, providing sector-wide advocacy and professional development to student and staff equity practitioners. Kylie’s research interests are in partnerships and equity, and has led national research projects to investigate the experiences of underrepresented cohorts with higher education.

Mark McLay

General Executive Member – Schools & Partnerships

Mark commenced in the role of CEO of Country Education Partnership in January 2022. Mark has over thirty years experience in Education, twenty three years of those as Principal. He has experience working in rural South Australia, Northern Territory and Victoria. Mark has a Dip Ed in Educational Psychology and is passionate about supporting the mental health of both students and staff in rural and regional areas.

Alex Washington

General Executive Member Media & Technology

Alex Washington, a Ph.D. student at Swinburne University of Technology, pioneers research expanding the technology acceptance model, focusing on technology adoption in secondary schools and its impacts on teachers and students. With a background in children’s media, including experience as a studio teacher for Netflix, Disney, and NBC Universal, as well as a primary educator in Australia and the USA, Alex brings a diverse perspective to his work. Hailing from Mississippi, he is driven by a passion for education and the transformative potential of technology and media.

Sue Ledger

General Executive Member – Research

A dedicated educator, researcher, and advocate for the teaching profession, Professor Sue Ledger is Head of School – Dean of Education at University of Newcastle. She draws on her lived experience in rural, remote, international, and diverse settings to inform and lead innovative projects. She has led a range of teaching and learning initiatives that prepare teachers to teach diverse students within diverse schooling contexts. She enjoys researching collaboratively to connect people, projects, and places to improve educational policy and practice around the globe.

Viveka Simpson

General Executive MemberTeacher Education

Growing up in regional Victoria, Viveka has a Bachelor of Natural Resource Management and Masters of Environmental Management and Development. A desire for a career change in 2011 saw Viveka move into education through Teach For Australia’s Leadership Development Program pathway – after which Viveka qualified as a science teacher. Viveka has since engaged in school leadership, leadership development and education system change roles. Viveka is currently the National Program Manager with Teach For Australia’s Future Leaders Program.

Annette Morphett

General Executive Member – Schools

As a born and bred local to Yorke Peninsula (YP) in South Australia, Annette has over 35 years experience teaching in YP rural schools. Currently, Annette is Leader of Learning and the Learning Support teacher at a small, YP rural school. She is also employed by UniSA Education Futures, delivering an external online course to undergraduate teaching students. Annette completed her PhD in 2022. Her research interests are in rural education, mathematics education, and doctoral writing groups.