As students across Australia wave goodbye to high school and HSC exams, they are beginning to make concrete plans for the early stages of their working lives. For the majority of students (72 per cent) in the top NAPLAN quartile, those plans involve university. However, for Indigenous students at the same level, that figure is less than half (43 per cent).
While university attendance rates are on the rise across the board, Indigenous students are often discouraged from pursuing tertiary education due to an entrenched sense of low expectations, economic concerns, and fears about racism and discrimination.
Bianca Williams wants to change that.
A Barkinji woman who grew up in Brewarrina in far western New South Wales, Bianca knows what it feels like to be considered a failure. “I didn’t have a lot of positive expectations around me as [an] individual during high school,” she says.
Now Bianca runs a program at Sydney University designed to ease the pathway for Indigenous students contemplating university. Wingara Mura Bunga Barrabugu, which runs in both summer and winter, enables prospective students to get a taste of university life in a culturally safe setting that fosters pride in Indigenous heritage.
Recognising a cultural tapestry
Growing up on the riverbank at Brewarrina, Bianca has always been proud of her roots. The area is known for the Brewarrina fish traps – an ingenious rock system built to capture fish travelling downstream. Created by Indigenous Australians an estimated 40,000 years ago, the traps are among the oldest man-made structures in the world.
As a child, Bianca learned traditional ways on the banks of the river from her grandmother – an initiated Barkinji woman. “Those fish traps actually kept my family alive for quite a while,” says Bianca, whose uncles often supplemented the family diet with fish when dim employment prospects meant food was scarce. “I’m so lucky to have that ingrained as part of my cultural tapestry,” she says.
During her early years at school in Brewarrina, the large population of Indigenous students meant traditional culture was embedded in the curriculum. But when Bianca began high school in Narromine, she found the experience demoralising. “Straight away, I was disadvantaged because I didn’t read and write at the level that was expected for people my age at that school,” she says.
She received no sign from teachers that she could expect to do better, something she has since discovered is a common experience for minority Indigenous students. She recalls one teacher telling her fellow students, “Don’t be like Bianca because you won’t get a job.”
Bianca applied and was accepted into the journalism program at Charles Sturt University after a representative came and spoke to students about alternative Indigenous pathways. She eventually left before graduating to pursue work in Indigenous-identified roles that have enabled her to maintain a connection to her culture.
In 2013, Bianca joined the University of Sydney as an Indigenous Outreach Officer just as the university was establishing its first ever Indigenous high school summer program with a national focus. Now Bianca spends her time encouraging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to achieve their full academic potential.
Acceptance letters for the Wingara Mura Bunga Barrabugu program went out last month. In January, participating students will stay at the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence in Redfern and visit the campus each day to learn about the academic and social opportunities open to them at the university. By the end of the program, students are generally eager to stay on and many of them will end up enrolling at the university.
What’s needed now
It’s a good start, but Bianca has her sights set even higher. As part of this year’s Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures, Bianca participated in a panel about Indigenous experiences in education. In it, she and others spoke about how their personal experiences in the Western school system demonstrated a fundamental lack of understanding of Indigenous culture.
“I feel there’s still a lot of progress to be made,” she says, now calling for the establishment of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tertiary institution that incorporates Western knowledge systems, but is all about Indigenous content and pedagogies, “so that our ways of seeing and being and operating in the world are actually just as acknowledged and revered as [the] mainstream.”