2020 NCSEHE Equity Fellow Janine Delahunty
‘You going to uni?’: Exploring how regional people navigate into and through higher education
Dr Janine Delahunty, University of Wollongong
The focus of my NCSEHE Equity Fellowship will be on the higher than average attrition of regional students from university. I am interested in finding out from regional students themselves what their perspectives are on future goals and what they perceive, or have already experienced, as barriers to completing a university degree. There really is no better way to understand how to provide relevant support than listening to what regional students are experiencing and then developing support that reflects the particular nuances of their world (Newman, 2019). This project will involve students from regional areas who are already at university as well as senior school students contemplating their futures beyond school. Perspectives from staff who support regional students in various roles will also be sought. By focusing on regional students Australia-wide, this Fellowship will build on initial findings from a 2018 NCSEHE-funded study, which indicated that coming to university for those from regional areas is rarely a simple decision, but has highly personal and complex repercussions.
What I aim to achieve
Through interviews and surveys, using reflective open questioning about future goals, conceptions of selves in the future (such as, ‘me as a physio’, or ‘me not as labourer’ etc.), I hope to develop a deeper understanding of how motivation and decision-making reflect aspects of becoming their imagined selves. It is also important to consider barriers and enablers that may be influential in hindering or assisting efforts towards future goals. As self-reflection is key to changing outcomes, behaviours and attitudes, I will develop a reflective tool that will help elicit deeper or more meaningful self-reflection on aspects of self (now, in the future), on motivations and actions involved, and in making barriers and enablers more visible. At regular points in the project I will be seeking feedback from critical friends and stakeholders, with attention to transferability, with the intention that resources be non-prescriptive to allow adaptability in a range of different areas of student support, across disciplines, and sector-wide. Themes from the data will also be used to draft a set of retention strategies.
As an innovative addition, I bring skills in fine-grained linguistic analysis which will provide even greater insight into students’ lived experience and perspectives. What I am particularly interested in is the meanings encoded within language when individuals talk about how they perceive the world and their place within it, and their opinions of things which encode particular attitudinal stances or positionings through aligning or disaligning with particular values. This provides a level of insight and detail into language of emotion and feelings, praise or criticism of behaviours (self or others) and of evaluation such as the social or aesthetic value of things or entities. Leaving family and often close-knit communities to attend university involves complex relational and emotional work for regional students, in addition to other logistical and practical decisions. Attitudinal analysis will contribute a deeper understanding of how transitioning into and through university is experienced for regional students, in order to develop relevant support resources that draw directly from this understanding.
Potential impact of the project
The outcomes of the fellowship have potential for sector-wide impact in regard to retaining regional students through evidence-based resources and principles informed by students themselves. This will help avoid ‘collective or mythic constructions’ of these particular environments and the support needed. During my secondment to the Department of Education, I am looking forward to sharing my findings and anticipate that the learning experience for me will be the opportunity to meet with Department staff and policymakers to discuss what the findings might mean and/or contribute to in light of policies in place for regional students. This will be really valuable for understanding how policy decisions are made, as well as for reflecting on how policy seems to be working “on the ground” and what this looks like from the qualitative perspective of the data.
A bit about me …
I came late into higher education, only completing my secondary schooling to Year 10, and returning to education in my 40s. I spent my 20s and 30s decades being mum, homemaker, and casual worker. My foray into HE was an experiment – dipping my toe in to see if I liked university study or not. That was in 2002 and I spent the next 13 years juggling family-work-part-time study – doing a BA, then Masters, then PhD. I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d be doing what I’m doing now, and never thought I’d have an ounce of influence to make a difference beyond my immediate social and family circles. Reflecting on this I believe I epitomise the transformative power of education. This experience sparked in me something that, in hindsight, was latent for many years — a desire to learn and help others learn. Over the past 5 years, through my involvement in various projects, I have played a significant role in translating findings so they make sense to students, practitioners, or policymakers. I have experienced the influence that evidence-based research has on making change — in particular for students who are less advantaged. University study has opened up opportunities I would not have had otherwise.
Finally, I have a vested interest in improving opportunities and support for regional students as my daughters and grandchildren live in regional areas of Victoria and remote Northern Territory. I am very grateful for the opportunity provided through this Equity Fellowship to contribute to improved outcomes for regional students.