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My Story: Dr Erica Southgate

Dr Erica Southgate believes that everyone has the potential to succeed, and is using technology to level the playing field of privilege.

Her 2016 appointment to the prestigious position of national Equity Fellow with the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education is a testament to her enduring commitment to equity in education. Erica is currently involved in several interdisciplinary projects that seek to assess and address equity issues in education and health.

Erica knows that it is essential to get out of her office and collaborate with communities, practitioners, policy makers, and researchers to develop real world solutions to complex educational and health problems. Only then, can peoples’ life opportunities be increased in meaningful and practical ways.


Erica credits a non-traditional academic trajectory and varied employment history, for affording her the life experience that allows her to work so constructively with a range of communities, including those experiencing disadvantage and marginalisation.

After completing a PhD in education, she was employed by a national health research centre where she worked with marginalised groups such as injecting drug users, sex workers, and the gay community.

It may sound obvious, but Erica stresses the importance of two-way learning. Often targeted by public health campaigns, Erica found that marginalised communities have their own practical and innovative methods of self-care, risk reduction and sharing knowledge.

“I think we need to genuinely learn from the communities that we are engaged with, instead of just expecting them to learn from us,” Erica says.

“That’s my ethos actually, it informs both my teaching and my research, and my collaboration with communities.”


A main area of focus for Erica is ensuring that people are aware of the increased opportunities presented by higher education, and for them to have the academic skills they need to thrive at university, regardless of their social background.

Erica identifies study skills and academic literacy as essential for university success. She was a main driver behind the development of the Uni Tune In smart-phone app, a free study skills toolkit for students – Apple; Android. Content for the app was developed from a two year collaboration with colleagues known as The Seahorse Project.

“Higher education can be a bit overwhelmingly for people who are the first in their family to go to university. You can be super smart, have great academic potential, and be highly motivated but not be adequately prepared in certain ways of thinking, learning, writing and engaging with ideas,” Erica explains.

“The Uni Tune In app puts the skills needed for effective university study in the palm of a student’s hand. Education is not always a level playing field, but we are giving people the tools to catch up and succeed.”


It is another literacy project that has Erica most excited. Erica has been working with Dr Shamus Smith, a senior lecturer from the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, to develop a series of literacy games designed for adult learners to improve their language skills.

“Education systems struggle to engage people, regardless of their age, to improve their literacy,” Erica notes.

“It’s like Angry Birds for literacy. In a video game format, you can play a game to improve aspects of literacy on your smart phone – at home, or on the bus or wherever you are. People can play in their own time and at their own pace and the often private nature of playing games alleviates some of the shame and stigma attached to having poor literacy.”

Erica credits the formidable commitment of Dr Smith for making the educational games a reality.

“I met up with Shamus and explained the idea, and he just got it. He basically took what we had developed and turned it into the Uni Tune In app. We have a creative working relationship with our interdisciplinary team of educators and software engineers. So far we have produced the Apostrophe Power game and are now developing Sentence Hero to teach punctuation and sentence structure,” Erica explains.

“There is a big social justice commitment to this kind of work, because the educational product has to be free.”

“There is a lot of commercialisation around technology, but it is only ethical and right that people have access to the resources that they need to help them succeed in education and life, even if they haven’t got a lot of money.”


Erica is working on several projects focusing on equity and education. She is involved in the Best Footprint Forward project, exploring how school and university students understand their digital footprints. She is a key member of DICE, a network of scholars interested in digital identity, curation of online presence, and serious games for learning.

She is also working with Associate Professor Maree Gruppetta from the Wollotuka Institute on the Yarning the Way project, a study based on Indigenous knowledge and methodologies that aims to explore pathways to post-secondary education for Aboriginal young people.

Erica’s understanding of barriers to higher education success saw her recently appointed as Equity Ambassador for Access and Student Experience for the University of Newcastle’s Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education (CEEHE). Through her role with the CEEHE, Erica hopes to contribute to the creation of national and international spaces for equity practitioners to engage together on big issues.


Erica continues to collaborate with colleagues from several faculties. Her understanding of the health field and focus on equity makes her an invaluable leader on current projects exploring access to and participation in high status degrees for students who are the first in their family to go to university.

Erica is working with Professor Brian Kelly, Chair and Director of the Centre for Resources Health and Safety, and Dr Caragh Brosnan from the School of Humanities and Social Science to identify ways to address the underrepresentation of students from first in family backgrounds in medical degrees, nationally and internationally.

Driven by a belief that interdisciplinary research is not only the way forward, Erica believes that it is the only way complex educational and health conundrums can be solved.

“If you bring people from different disciplines, methodological, professional and community backgrounds together, they combine perspectives to come up with interesting solutions that have real utility and meaning for people.”

“Not only must we be committed to researching complex social issues, but we must also be dedicated to producing cutting edge solutions as well.”


Previously published by The University of Newcastle Australia and reproduced with permission.

Posted 3 June 2016 Posted in General