by Angela Ostojic
“I think they’re trying to tell a story,” says a student from Glebe Primary School, sharing his thoughts about the Indigenous artwork hanging on the walls of the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology, Sydney.
Several dozen students participated in tours and workshops around Jumbunna on 4 August as part of National Indigenous Literacy Day.
For many Australian students, going to university is the next logical step after high school. However, for Indigenous students the path is less clear. According to Jumbunna, many Indigenous students remain in high school up until Year 9 , after which there is a sharp decline in the number who continue to Years 10, 11 and 12.
This is a worrying trend because students who do not finish the senior school years have fewer tertiary entry options. Limited tertiary education opportunities have a flow-on effect on the students’ employability in a competitive market economy.
However, UTS has a program to increase Indigenous enrolments by 2.2 per cent of the entire student population by 2018. Encouraging Indigenous students to finish Year 12 and to enrol in a university course involves challenging the feeling of ”not belonging” at university. The program aims to combat feelings of cultural marginalisation by normalising the university experience for Indigenous students and showing them that university campuses are places where everyone belongs and should feel welcome.
Christopher Combridge, an Indigenous student studying in the faculty of Health Sciences at UTS, says he hopes the event will give young students the idea that if they are dreaming big they should go for it.
“Uni is not all about putting your head in the books all the time, it’s more a way of having more opportunities in life; being able to do what you want to do, meeting people and having contacts at organisations that can lead you to bigger things,” he says.
Sophia Romano, a Torres Strait Islander woman who is Indigenous Outreach Officer at Jumbunna, says Jumbunna programs are trying to teach the kids how to aspire, to want a career.
“The only way Indigenous people are going to close the gap is through education: the more education people have, the longer, healthier lives they will live.”
Ms Romano says that the strategy embedded in the Indigenous Literacy Day event is long ranging, targeting students from Years 5 to 10. This strategy is pre-emptive; it seeks to welcome students to the university before they disengaged with studying, to keep them motivated to maintain their grades and ambition throughout high school.
She says that “demystifying the university experience, showing that this isn’t just a scary building, that this is a place where they can feel comfortable and belong” are the things that will break the psychological barriers that have held many Indigenous students back from considering university.
Melita Rowston, Marketing and Outreach Co-ordinator at Jumbunna, says the target increase proposed by UTS should see Indigenous student numbers triple. The university needs to enrol another 600 Indigenous students to successfully reach this goal.
Sophia Romano believes the 2018 enrolment target is an ambitious one, but she is happy knowing that the university is working on retention rates as much as they are focusing on enrolment targets. She says Jumbunna is “making sure students are graduating in set times and passing subjects, and making sure they have job paths. It is not just about getting bums on seats, it’s about getting students who are capable of studying.”
Indigenous actress Leah Purcell, who is resident writer at UTS Centre for New Writing, presented a workshop about inspiration to the junior high school students.
“There was a generation where we all baulked at education because it was a white man’s talk. And I was one of them, where I didn’t want it because it came from white fellas. Then one old black fella said we’ve got to make these our dreamings. Education is our need if we’re going to take our people into the future,” she says.
Glebe Public School has 43 Indigenous students. When shown an artwork that had a heart, a peace sign and lightning bolt replacing the sun on the Aboriginal flag, their responses identified three key words – “love”, “peace” and “power”.
Wendy Buchanan, special learning support officer at Glebe Public, says her Year 5 and 6 students “want to go to uni, especially the big kids”.