“Aim lower and be more realistic.”
That’s the advice Melena Atkinson received when she told her careers counsellor she wanted to study the Bachelor of Arts (Extended) at the University of Melbourne.
Her Indigenous Coordinator and Mentors convinced her to apply, and she was accepted into the degree. Atkinson has since set her sights on a bigger goal: being accepted into Cambridge University as an Aurora scholar.
The Bachelor of Arts (Extended) is a four-year degree for motivated and aspiring Indigenous students. It’s run by several partners within The University of Melbourne, including the Faculty of Arts, Murrup Barak Melbourne Institute for Indigenous Development, Trinity College and other residential colleges.
The degree has been designed partly to combat the “deficit model” of thinking about Indigenous students.
“How we imagine people to be makes a really big difference to them,” says David Collis, Program Leader (BA Extended) at Trinity College.
“Especially young people. If you assume a deficit that indigenous people are not going to cope, (they) internalise that.”
Many universities offer a transition or foundation diploma as a way into a Bachelor’s degree, but the BA (Extended) deliberately blends tailored transition subjects with BA subjects from day one. Students take classes like ‘English For Academic Purposes’ alongside ‘Aboriginalities’ and ‘Environment and Storyt’.
Associate Professor Parshia Lee-Stecum, Program Director of the Bachelor of Arts, notes that because of this unique blend of classes, “We’re not setting up another obstacle or hurdle that they have to meet or leap over to get into the real business (of studying).”
“It might seem like a small thing to outsiders, but that major innovation in the thinking of how to provide an access program has made a world of difference.”
Professor Lee-Stecum is quick to clarify that he doesn’t take credit for the model, attributing it to the vision of Australian Indigenous Studies’ Phillip Morrissey and others who instigated the program around a decade ago.
Thanks to its unique blend, the learning in each class informs the learning in others.
“We provide students right from the early stages with Indigenous Standpoint Theory, one of Professor Martin Nakata’s key concepts,” explains Collis, “so that students don’t just survive university but actually name what’s going on for them.”
“You unlock a whole lot of potential academic strengths within the students. Students who have gone from an ATAR of 50 or 60 suddenly get H1s within a year or two.
Atkinson says that learning the essentials of university writing “gave us agency over our representation, as we were able to write about our culture from our perspectives in an academic structure.
“Of course, a big part of this confidence came from having amazing lecturers and tutors whom we could learn from and relate to.”
Murrup Barak indigenous Student Ambassador Jenna Kramme says that the degree has given her more confidence, especially when it comes to academic writing.
“I believe my ATAR score did not reflect my true ability…I have been able to prove this by completing all my chosen subjects with high scores, and now being included in the 2016 Dean’s Honours list.”
There’s some mischief and fun in seeing students open up, Collis says.
“One of the subjects I teach, ‘Environment and Story’, my co-teacher is Indigenous, so I’m the only non-Indigenous person in the room. One day a student said to me ‘hey David, what’s it like being the only whitefella in the room when we’re bagging out whitefellas?’ And I said, ‘it’s an honour!’ Because you can tell the students are becoming really comfortable and are really owning the space.”
A highlight of the degree is that there is a strong sense of a cohort among the students.
“The course enabled me to connect and grow with other Indigenous students and to become a part of a new community that supported and nurtured each other,” says student Indi Lowe.
“I came from the country and I was surprised about the amount of support I got from staff and peers for the transition between school and university,” she says.
Students spend at least the first year of the degree living in one of the University’s Colleges, each of which has a distinct identity.
The model’s success means that other faculties are taking notice: a Bachelor of Science (Extended) was recently introduced at the University.
Atkinson says that studying the BA (Extended) has given her “great pride being amongst other passionate indigenous people and hearing their stories and watching them use their experiences to excel in western academia.”
“I had amazing positive role models who pushed me to achieve my aspirations and continue to support me through my journey. I hope that I can do the same thing for other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.”
Title image: (from left to right) Associate Professor Parshia Lee-Stecum, Associate Dean Teaching & Learning, Indi Lowe, Jenna Kramme, Shonae Hobson, BA (Extended) students