First Nations students need culturally safe spaces at their universities

First Nations students need culturally safe spaces at their universities
Archway at the back of Winthrop Hall, University of Western Australia. Credit: User:Orderinchaos/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Since the Closing the Gap targets were first introduced in 2008, the number of Indigenous university enrolments have more than doubled. The numbers grew from 9,490 students in 2008 to 19,935 students in 2018. During this period, bachelor award course completion grew by 110.6%, from 860 degrees to 1,811.

Indigenous centers embedded within universities around the country have played a vital role in supporting this growth of Indigenous students.

Students can feel supported on their learning journey and gain support from other students experiencing similar challenges, while being in an environment that understands the obligations of culture, family and community.

Challenges for Indigenous students

Indigenous students who come to study at university already face a number of disadvantages in education.

For many they are first person in their family to attend university, which can bring a sense of pressure and responsibility from community.

This journey for students can be quite isolating and stressful. Particularly when a lack of understanding by family and community leads to forms of lateral violence—violence towards one's peers.

This is an experience commonly shared among Indigenous students at university and is one of the reasons it's important to have culturally safe spaces that support them while studying.

In addition to cultural and family obligations, other challenges include financial struggles of full-time study, lack of requisite academic skills and unfamiliarity of place while being disconnected from country.

How culturally safe spaces can help

Indigenous centers are culturally safe places instrumental in success. They often provide a range of supports to students from scholarships, workplace learning, tutoring, counseling and accommodation. It's an environment reserved for Indigenous students that helps build confidence and academic ability.

International research has indicated creating a supportive institutional space for Aboriginal students can build confidence and self belief in their study abilities, which is a strong motivator for ongoing engagement and active learning.

Embeddedd within some Indigenous centers are educational programs and outreach opportunities that encourage to pursue university as an option and provide alternative entry pathways for future students. One study found a number of Aboriginal students sought out a particular post secondary institution because of the Aboriginal education program on offer. Participants said the small class sizes, peer support networks and positive support from authority figures were some of the reasons behind their choice.

Indigenous centers have the capability of working in alignment with other schools across the university to further support students.

In another case study, the Kulbardi center at Murdoch University aimed to increased its visibility across the university with the intent of schools reaching out to the center to support students in need. This was a success and resulted in schools reaching out to the center to support them in designing culturally appropriate curriculum, cultural competency training and reaching out to student success coordinators about how they could best support their Individual Indigenous students.

Though Indigenous centers provide a wealth of knowledge and experience in ensuring the success of Indigenous students. It is important to note a "whole-of-university" approach is important in achieving this. This can be done through utilizing university resources to further assist First Nations students in their success at university. It needs to be acknowledged Indigenous is everyone's responsibility, not just the Indigenous Center's. This is vital for significant change to occur, in not only increasing the number of First Nations students at university, but to support their successes.

The UWA example

In late 2020 following the COVID outbreak, the University of Western Australia welcomed the new School of Indigenous Studies which would be the new home to Indigenous students on campus.

Bilya Marlee (meaning river of the swan in local Noongar language, as it's built on the swan river) is currently home to over 250 Indigenous students who come from all over the country, including rural and regional Western Australia.

The building was culturally designed by Indigenous Elder Dr. Richard Walley, with input from staff and students. Upon consultation, Dr. Walley used a cultural blueprint to inform the which included connection to place and its surroundings. This includes the connection to plants and animals of the area and their significance to that place.

By creating a that connects to culture, the building hopes to enhance the feeling of support and safety for students while studying. The building aims to make students feel like they are studying on country and in a place that supports their cultural identity while navigating a foreign education system.

Consultation with cultural experts such as Dr. Walley is a way universities can explore opportunities to address challenges faced by Indigenous students at university.


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Citation: First Nations students need culturally safe spaces at their universities (2022, February 4) retrieved 8 August 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-02-nations-students-culturally-safe-spaces.html
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