I-LEAP: Changing the landscape of leadership in Australia

By Alice Boer-Endacott

“If we can nurture and celebrate the aspirations and achievements of elite Aboriginal sportsmen and women, or elite Aboriginal artists and musicians, why don’t we do the same for intellectual leaders?”

This question, posed by foundation supporter of the Indigenous Leadership, Excellence and Achievement Program ("I-LEAP"), Peter Clark, goes to the heart of one of the most significant challenges facing Indigenous school leavers today. Many young Indigenous people either perform or have the potential to perform at a high academic level - a feat that is especially impressive given that some come from communities that are chronically under-resourced - yet do not think that attending university, or being an intellectual leader, is something to which they can or should aspire. As a result, Indigenous Australians are underrepresented at a tertiary level across the nation, both in terms of entrance to, and completion of, university degrees.

In response to this, the Faculty of Arts in partnership with the Melbourne Humanities Foundation Board, and with the advice, guidance and participation of Murrup Barak Institute for Indigenous Development and close involvement of Professor Ian Anderson, Foundation Chair of Indigenous Higher Education, initiated I-LEAP in 2015 as a program seeking to build aspiration and excellence among Indigenous students. Complementing the various access programs offered by the University, I-LEAP seeks to nurture and support high-achieving Indigenous students at secondary, undergraduate, and postgraduate levels and create a cohort of leaders who feel comfortable and excited at the prospect of attending university and completing advanced degrees in fields that excite them.

2015 participants in the Murrup Barak Experience and Leadership Camp / I-LEAP

Two iterations of the secondary program have now been held and student testimonials indicate that participation in the program has cultivated and strengthened pride in identity and heritage, as well as the belief that attendance at a world-renowned university is not only possible but well within their grasp. As one student noted: "Having many leadership values and traits outlined has definitely helped form, in my mind, a clearer understanding of what a leader looks like. Furthermore, I feel compelled to go home and do my best to lead and to exhibit those values and traits." As Associate Professor Sara Wills, I-LEAP Advisory Board member explained: "One of the most significant benefits of any kind of scholarship or academic program is self-belief. The I-LEAP program is about building aspiration. No matter where a student might come from, they have the right to a great education and should be encouraged to succeed and dream about a future that includes academic success and achievement - which can then be the springboard for other achievements and contributions beyond the University."

Over the five days that the year 11 and 12 students spend together in the school program, two to three of these are spent on campus, experiencing what life at university is actually like. University of Melbourne students and staff from Murrup Barak provide leadership for these activities, with the involvement of current Indigenous undergraduate and graduate students, who play a particularly important role. The remaining days are spent at Lancemore Hill in Central Victoria, where students participate in activities designed to encourage personal growth and reflection. Some of these activities include: discussing their ideal leaders and what qualities they possess; roleplaying situations in which leadership might be required; reflective exercises that examine personal motivation and challenges in learning; key issues in Indigenous leadership today; and discussion of the power of narrative in representing their community. This program seeks to instill self-belief and appreciation for academic achievement. In 2015, of the 50 students who participated, 85% applied to the University of Melbourne, and of this figure 18 were accepted and are currently enrolled.

2017 will see the commencement of the undergraduate component of I-LEAP, as well as the announcement of Honours scholarships. Conceived as an enrichment program to build leadership skills among currently enrolled students, the undergraduate program also emphasises the development of academic skills with one-on-one mentorship provided. I-LEAP seeks to alleviate the attitude of "I can't or shouldn’t do this." This is achieved through making students feel as though they are not alone and have skills that make them valuable intellectual leaders.

As I-LEAP develops and grows, the intention is to build networks that enable students to transition into further study and careers. The University has formed a partnership with the Jawun group to provide career mentorship. In time, I-LEAP will provide a cohort of alumni whose shared educational experiences offer support and assistance as individuals move into their various professions.

The Faculty knows that talented Indigenous Australians can undertake scholarship at the highest level. By supporting the development of academic excellence and leadership, it seeks to play a part in equipping students to contribute to a transformed Indigenous future.

In 2017, the Faculty is launching a number of Indigenous initiatives and looks forward to sharing more about this news. If you’d like to contribute, please contact Julie du Plessis on julie.dp@unimelb.edu.au.

Title image: 2015 participants in the Murrup Barak Experience and Leadership Camp / I-LEAP