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In conversation with NCSEHE Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Olivia Groves

Earlier this month, the NCSEHE was delighted to welcome Dr Olivia Groves as NCSEHE Postdoctoral Research Fellow.

Olivia joins the NCSEHE from the University of Wollongong, where she worked between the School of Education and Outreach and Equity unit in teaching and research roles.

Olivia is a researcher and experienced educator, having taught diverse learners across Australia and Asia in primary, language education, and tertiary settings.

Her current research activity examines how student equity can be achieved in the higher education sector and beyond, including research into best practice career education, particularly for those with disability; supporting student success in higher education in the time of COVID-19; and understanding and ameliorating inequities in graduate outcomes.

NCSEHE: Welcome to the NCSEHE Olivia! You bring unique experiences and perspectives to our team — could you tell us a little about your personal background and your pathway into, and through, university?

OG: Thank you! I’m excited to have joined the team. I come from a regional area in New South Wales — Bowral in the Southern Highlands. I attended the local high school there and was first in my family to attend university. In high school I remember knowing that I wanted to go to uni but not knowing what I wanted to study — I was just interested in so many things! I got early entry but accepted a place in a Bachelor of Commerce at University of Western Sydney (UWS). UWS was the closest university to home and I used to live on campus during semester and move home over the summer. I used to pack up my room into my little car and drive it home again. Upon entering university, I received a scholarship which included money to help me cover some expenses as well as a job in hospitality. I worked a lot while I was studying and once graduated, transitioned within the organisation to marketing and event co-ordination.

NCSEHE: For several years, you enjoyed a successful career as a teacher in primary and tertiary settings; what led you to move into the research field?

OG: You’re right, I have been a teacher in a variety of contexts. Five years after completing my first degree, I returned to university and trained as a primary teacher. With this qualification I taught casually in NSW schools before taking a two-year contract to teach English at a language school in Malaysia. After living, working and travelling widely in South-East Asia, I took a volunteer leadership position of a local school in Kathmandu, Nepal.

In 2009, I returned to Australia but it was during the global financial crisis and employment looked scarce so I decided to return to university and obtain a Master of Education (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). During this coursework degree I worked as an English language teacher at University of Wollongong (UOW) College and, as I was introduced to research methods, began work as a research assistant as well as tutor and lecturer in the School of Education. An interest in and aptitude for research led me to pursue a Doctor of Philosophy. My doctoral research investigated the participation of international students in the local Australian community during their overseas study experiences.

NCSEHE: In your extensive experience as an educator, you have taught diverse student cohorts across Australia and Asia. Has this influenced your current focus on student equity research?

OG: That’s a good observation. I think it has. Growing up, I don’t remember coming across many people who were that different from myself. Bowral wasn’t a very diverse community. But at 17 I had the privilege of being the Lions Club Youth Exchange Representative to the USA. There I got to experience southern hospitality in the homes of Lions Club families in Texas. Then, after my first degree, I worked as a Camp Counsellor in a Jewish Summer Camp in Missouri and continued on to travel through Europe and Egypt. Two years later I returned overseas again, working both in Scotland and England in hospitality and administration as well as touring Europe in a campervan. As mentioned, I also lived and taught in Malaysia and Nepal for three years. I think that these experiences of not just sightseeing but living with families in local communities gave me real insights into difference, for better or for worse (ask me later about helping to run a school in Nepal which still used corporal punishment!). It really was a privilege to be able to travel internationally, to have opportunities to live and work with people quite different from myself, and see first-hand their challenges as well as learning from them. These experiences really cemented my interest in culture, identity and learning and makes researching diversity and equity a natural progression that is both fascinating and rewarding.

NCSEHE: You have recently researched and published in the areas of post-graduation outcomes, and the university experience for First-in-Family students. Do you think your own experiences have provided deeper insights across these areas?

OG: I really think they do. There’s a debate around whether it’s best to be an ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’ researcher but it’s more complicated than that as there are often multiple identities and positionings at play. For my PhD research, I was an outsider to the experiences of the Saudi Arabian international students I investigated. I was neither Saudi, Muslim or a second language speaker of English but I feel like my natural curiosity and their willingness to share their experiences with me overcame my ‘outsiderness’.

In my more recent work in equity in higher education, I feel like I’m more of an ‘insider’ with the statements of participants often resonating with my own experiences of being a student. I don’t feel that I received the support I needed in high school to decide what occupation or career would suit me best and once in university I feel like I was bumping around in the dark — I really didn’t know anything. When I hear participants talking, I often find myself reflecting on my own experiences and yes, I think that this provides me with insights into the research which I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

NCSEHE: Your work with the NCSEHE will include a major National Careers Institute (NCI) Partnership Grant project to establish Australia’s first Career Development Learning Hub for students with disability. What do you hope to take away from this, and other, projects at the Centre?

OG: I’m very excited about the research that we are conducting this year at NCSEHE. The NCI project is a much needed one which will help to support a group of students who continue to achieve poorer outcomes from education and work — those with disability. The nationwide project builds on our 2019-20 project investigating career advice for students from low SES backgrounds and the expertise of the 2020 NCSEHE Research Fellows relating to disability support in higher education. We will be applying our successful research methodology to this problem and establishing resources to help support best practice career development learning for students with disability. I’m looking forward to deepening my knowledge of this field, turning a focus to a different equity student cohort and considering what best practice career development learning looks like for them specifically. This work will tie in nicely to the thinking and writing that we are doing for our edited book on Career Development Learning Sustainability.

I’m also excited to collaborate with the other Research Fellows at the Centre on various projects this year. Watch this space!

NCSEHE: What are your hopes for the future?

OG: What a question! Where do I start? I guess I hope that COVID-19 disappears and that students are allowed back on campus so that they can get the full university experience and the best out of their education. Distance learning is tough on most people, but particularly those who are already vulnerable. I also hope that the sector can invite international students back, recover some losses, and rehire the staff who have been laid off.

Personally, I look forward to travelling again. Being able to interview students face-to-face, network and disseminate our research at conferences is rewarding and a valuable part of our work. We are planning a CDL Disability Symposium to be held in January 2023 and it would be wonderful to bring together a large number of people from across Australia and beyond to share what they know and learn about best practice career education.

Posted 11 February 2021 Posted in Editorial