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Ground breaking program supports Aboriginal students

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Imagine you are the first person in your family to attend university; the culture and structure of higher education a foreign landscape to navigate. This is often the case for the 75 to 100 Aboriginal students who are enrolled in health sciences courses in any given semester. While achieving entrance to university is no mean feat, the myriad demands of tertiary education can often prove challenging for Aboriginal students to manage and, compared to other domestic students, they are more than twice as likely to drop out of university in their first year.

It’s a statistic Ms Cheryl Davis, the faculty’s Director Indigenous Engagement, is determined to change. Ms Davis is the project lead on the faculty’s innovative Balang Djuripin pilot project, a joint initiative of the Faculty of Health Sciences and the Centre for Aboriginal Studies (CAS) funded by a Curtin Learning and Teaching Innovation grant. The Balang Djuripin project has adapted the successful LGBTIQ+ Ally model to develop a culturally safe learning environment for Aboriginal students and, by extension, aims to increase retention and graduation rates.

“Aboriginal students often work incredibly hard to gain entry to university, however they can struggle significantly when they begin their studies and they need well-considered support to ensure they continue on and complete their courses,” Ms Davis said.

“Many of our students are not familiar with the culture of university. They often have diverse needs ranging from wanting to gain proof of Aboriginality, to financial support for textbooks, to applying for scholarships and accessing academic support and tutoring. Of course, some of our students need far less support and are successfully navigating around campus and succeeding academically, however many aspects of higher education can make our students feel extremely anxious and disempowered.”

Balang Djuripin translates to ‘they/them are happy’. The project aims to develop a visible network of Koordas (allies) in the Faculty of Health Sciences to support staff and actively provide secure learning environments for Aboriginal students, as well as develop capacity to embed Indigenous perspectives in the curriculum.

Some of the project administrators and participants inside the Centre for Aboriginal Studies.
Some of the project administrators and participants.
Ms Bev Councillor, Project Research Assistant, speaking at the Centre for Aboriginal Studies.
Ms Bev Councillor, Project Research Assistant, CAS.

Ways of working

Curtin has long been recognised as a leader in Reconciliation. It was the first University to implement an Aboriginal Employment Strategy, issue a Statement of Reconciliation and adopt a Reconciliation Action Plan. The Balang Djuripin pilot program builds on the strong foundations laid by Curtin’s Indigenous Cross-Cultural Capability Framework, launched in May 2016, in expanding Aboriginal knowledge and perspectives amongst 100s of staff and students.

Approximately 27 staff, representing most schools in the faculty, participated in the Balang Djuripin pilot, which consisted of three workshops: Wogga Warniny (Blanket Exercise), On Country (Mogumber Mission and Rabbit Proof Fence) and Support Students through to Graduation. The second part of the pilot is a research project, including data collection, reflection activities and interviews, which will be completed later this year.

The Wogga Warniny workshop provided staff with information about Aboriginal history and people, and the importance of land and culture. Staff learnt how, upon invasion, Aboriginal people were rounded up and forced off their traditional lands.

In the On Country workshop, an Elder took staff to visit the site of Mogumber Mission, where children were taken from their parents, now known as the Stolen Generations. Staff visited the site of a memorial plaque for the children who passed away whilst institutionalised, never returning to their family and country.

Staff gained further knowledge about Aboriginal history, including the Aborigines Act 1905, which governed the lives of all Aboriginal people in Western Australia for nearly 60 years, and provided a legal framework whereby Aboriginal children – the Stolen Generations – could be forcibly removed from their families and institutionalised, creating a legacy of generational trauma and loss that is still felt today. Under the Act, Aboriginal people were also required to gain permission to marry and permission to gain employment.

Curtin Centre for Aboriginal Studies staff.
Curtin has long been recognised as a leader in Reconciliation.
Curtin Centre for Aboriginal Studies staff.
The faculty’s Pro Vice-Chancellor, Professor Archie Clements, attended the celebration.

The third workshop, Providing Cultural and Academic Support to Improve Indigenous Graduate Outcomes, explored the role and responsibilities of staff, and how to work with the Indigenous Engagement team to better support students, including protocols for approaching Indigenous students and strategies for best practice.

Ms Davis said staff indicated the workshops prompted them to reflect on their relationships with Aboriginal students.

“Staff expressed the desire for a more comprehensive understanding of Aboriginal ways of working, so they can better support their students,” Ms Davis said.

“Staff were very engaged with the content delivered in all three workshops, and many reflected on how they could use their learnings to engage more effectively with Aboriginal students.”

A network of Koordas

Earlier this month, the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Deborah Terry, and the faculty’s Pro Vice-Chancellor, Professor Archie Clements, and Director Indigenous Engagement, Ms Cheryl Davis, gathered with colleagues and project participants to celebrate the successful completion of part one of the pilot.

In her opening address, the Vice-Chancellor congratulated the project team and noted the importance of the Balang Djuripin pilot.

“The project highlights the essential role non-Indigenous staff have in creating welcoming and culturally secure learning environments for Aboriginal students,” the Vice-Chancellor said.

“Without the provision of culturally secure learning spaces it is unlikely Curtin will see significant improvements in the numbers of Indigenous students enrolling in, and graduating from, their course of choice.

The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Deborah Terry, at a lectern, giving a speech.
The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Deborah Terry, spoke about the importance of creating culturally secure learning environments.
Curtin staff at the Centre for Aboriginal Studies.
Aboriginal students will be supported by a network of Koordas.

“I look forward to hearing more about both the outcomes of the associated research project and the Koorda network and congratulate the project team, the Faculty of Health Sciences and the Centre for Aboriginal Studies.

“If the Koordas prove to be as successful as the LGBTIQ+ Allies we will hopefully see a University-wide Koorda network with potential for a national network.”

A University-wide network of Koordas is something Ms Davis is passionate about developing.

Aboriginal students want to have relationships with staff, and they want to feel guided and supported,” Ms Davis said.

“Our aim is to continue to build our network of Koordas in the faculty, and ultimately the University, and offer ongoing training and professional development opportunities. Koordas play an incredibly important role in the success of our Aboriginal students, and they have the opportunity to change lives.”

The Balang Djuripin project team includes: Ms Cheryl Davis, Director, Indigenous Engagement, Faculty of Health Sciences, Professor Marion Kickett, Director, CAS, Professor Simon Forrest, Elder in Residence, Dr Robin Barrington, Learning Designer, Indigenous Curriculum & Pedagogy, CLT, Ms Kristy Indich, Indigenous Engagement Officer, Faculty of Health Sciences, Bev Councillor, Project Research Assistant, CAS and Dr Helen Flavell, Coordinator, Scholarship of Learning and Teaching, Faculty of Health Sciences.

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