Australia

The program bridging the gap to get more Indigenous students into university

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The University of Sydney's Bunga Barrabugu Winter program is helping Indigenous Australians achieve their dreams of further study.

To be among the first in the family to go university is something Wiradjuri woman Georgia Ward is determined to achieve.

Growing up in the small country town of Mudgee in NSW, Georgia has only one other family member who has attained a tertiary qualification.

"My dad is in the mines and my mum is a procurement manager so they have never pursued tertiary education as such. It is only my aunty who has done university. So I'm the first Ward [to have the chance to go to university]."

Georgia Ward is aiming to be among the first in her family to go to university.
Georgia Ward is aiming to be among the first in her family to go to university.
Supplied

She hadn't always known what she wanted to do, but the experience of a family member planted the seed.

"My aunty was a nurse, but my grandfather had died last year and so when I was in the ICU (intensive care unit) I found the nurses made the bad situation just that much better because they were so supportive of the families."

Her achievements in rugby league, rugby union and horse riding had taken her out of the Mudgee community, but it still had not prepared her for the scale of the changes in the big smoke, Sydney.

Tailored support

"Coming from Mudgee, the town is quite small [10, 923 residents] then coming to Sydney [4.6 million residents] - it is quite a culture shock. Everyone's head is down, [they don't] really talk to anyone. So it is very different. 

"I'm a pretty independent person, so I've always wanted to go and do new things. But I think the idea that I'm coming here, and there is no-one that I know, is what is really intimidating. I am living with people I don't know, going to class with people I don't know and in a really big place. Sydney is massive."

But smoothing the way has been the support staff and 37 other students involved in the University of Sydney's Bunga Barrabugu Winter program

Year 12 Indigenous students take part in the University of Sydney's Bunga Barrabugu Winter program.
Year 12 Indigenous students take part in the University of Sydney's Bunga Barrabugu Winter program.
SBS

"I feel if I came to the Sydney of University next year, I would have a place that would feel like home. I would have people to talk to, I would have support through everything I did.

"They have this program called MOBS - mentoring our brothers and sisters - where we get to access two hours of tutoring per subject each week. I think things like that and access to say we can go sit in a coffee room with our other Indigenous brothers and sisters that helps prevent [dropping out].

"And that is where it so brilliant that the university does things like this because I can come in confident that if I have an issue, I don't have to drop out because someone is going to be there for me."

The program aims at facilitating the successful university enrolment of Indigenous Year 12 students, working with them in a peer-supported environment ahead of their final HSC exams.

Georgia says she has big dreams of working overseas and the winter program is getting her closer to her goal. 

"I have very high expectations for myself, especially in education and in the sport (rugby league and rugby union) that I play. I want to succeed. And I want it done by certain times. But I do have to take a chill pill and go with the flow, and do the best I can."

The 2016 Census found Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in urban areas were approximately twice as likely than those living in non-urban areas to have attained a tertiary qualification.

Push to boost Indigenous enrolment

Indigenous enrolments at Australian universities have been growing in absolute numbers, but the size of the Indigenous student population remains small.

The share of domestic students who are Indigenous stood at 1.8 per cent as of 2017 - a 0.5 per cent increase over nine years. The overall Indigenous student enrolment numbers more than doubled (102.7 per cent) to 19,237 in 2017.

Universities Australia's Indigenous strategy aims to boost this figure, in particular the completion rates.

The nine-year completion rate for bachelor degree students is 47 per cent for Indigenous Australians and 74 per cent for non-Indigenous students. 

University of Sydney deputy vice-chancellor Professor Lisa Jackson Pulver says the program aims to create leadership opportunities for Indigenous Australians. 

"Education has the potential to transform lives. 

"This program gives them access to staff across our schools and faculties - from music to medicine.

"Academics will work with students to provide academic and personal development advice relevant to their chosen future study and employment." 

Fourteen of the 41 participants in last year's program received offers to study at the university. This year, the university is allowing students to apply for an early conditional offer before sitting the final exams, which grants a place conditional on the final ATAR.

Paying tribute to Indigenous cultural roots

Georgia says she is aware of the challenges facing Indigenous Australians in attaining leadership positions, but she plans on using that resilience to spur her to further heights.

"For me, my heritage is probably one of the most important things to my identity and who I am really.

"I have found that the struggles are a part of who we are. However, we need to use that struggle as a driving force to move forward into the future, and to build a path for future generations."

Her advice for other Indigenous students contemplating university is to get clear on your goals.  

"I think just take a deep breath, look at options, whether it is writing them out or talking to the elders in the community, or careers advisers. It is okay to change your mind.

"If you know what you want, go get it. Don't let being Indigenous hold you back, don't let silly trivial things like going out all the time stop you from getting what you want." 

Australia's 2019 Closing the Gap report found only two national goals (early education, year 12 attainment) of seven are on track to be met.

NAIDOC Week is marked 7-14 July and celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. For more stories on NAIDOC celebrations around the country go to sbs.com.au/nitv/naidoc

Would you like to share your story with SBS News? Email yourstory@sbs.com.au

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