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My Story: James Smith

Associate Professor James Smith is the Program Manager for the HEPPP-WCE initiative within the Office of the Pro Vice-Chancellor for Indigenous Leadership at Charles Darwin University, a role that involves working with six remote Indigenous communities to build aspiration, expectation and capacity to participate in higher education. James recently spent a week at the NCSEHE as a visiting fellow. While we had him, we took the opportunity to ask James about his work.

NCSEHE: Please tell us a little about yourself. Where did you grow up? Where have you studied? How did you transition into higher education?

James: I grew up in Launceston, Tasmania. I went to Riverside Primary School – the local public school and one of the largest in the state. My memories of primary school are great – we had an interesting range of specialist subjects and extracurricular opportunities, such as choir, orchestra, Italian and sports. I met two of my best mates in kindergarten and year one – they remain my closest friends.

I later transitioned into Riverside High School (years 7 to 10), which was located directly next door. Riverside High School was a large public high school which had a reputation akin to many of the local private schools. It (well, the students I guess!) excelled in sports, music and the arts. I can distinctly remember the Principal being very strict on the school uniform – for boys, socks up!!! I was never a natural academic and had to work really hard to achieve good results. I grew passionate about science during my high school years, and remember participating in the Siemens Summer Science School and other science related competitions. But, I also enjoyed an array of sports, including swimming, diving, cross country, tennis and hockey. A highlight of high school was winning the State Rock Eisteddfod – a real team effort that built a strong sense of school community.

At the end of year 10, I transitioned to Launceston College (years 11 and 12). This was the feeder school for a range of primary schools across the region. At the time this was the largest public college in the Southern hemisphere with approximately 2,200 students. In retrospect it was somewhat reminiscent of a mini university – no bells, a huge number of course offerings both academic and VET, and an environment that encouraged student independence. It provided the perfect preparation for a transition into uni. Year 11 was not particularly exciting, I completed subjects I was told do, rather than subjects that interested me (perhaps with the exception of Human Biology). Participation in the National Youth Science Forum between year 11 and 12 reinvigorated my interest in pursuing subjects that would interest me. In year 12, I studied psychology, health, sport science, biology and chemistry – I loved this combination and had a really fun year (while simultaneously working casually about 10 hours per week and training about 18 hours a week for sport). I don’t really remember year 12 being a stressful period. Health was my favourite subject, primarily because of a passionate and enthusiastic teacher that cared about each and every student. It was instrumental in paving my subsequent higher education pathway.

I had done my research about higher education options (perhaps too much!!!). I really wanted to pursue a degree in human movement at UniSA (Adelaide) or Deakin University (Melbourne). Mum and Dad couldn’t really understand why I wouldn’t choose to study human movement at the Launceston campus of the University of Tasmania and just stay at home with them. It would certainly be cheaper. However, I knew it was time to ‘spread my wings’. It was a challenge to (a) convince my parents that an interstate course would better meet my career aspirations; and (b) to demonstrate how I could afford and sustain an interstate move. We were not an affluent family (Dad was a part-time Arts student at UTAS), so it was going to be difficult. Upon further investigation, I found a range of inequities in the eligibility criteria for Youth Allowance. This meant I would receive nothing if I wanted to pursue higher education interstate. The then Minister for Social Securities, Hon. Jocelyn Newman (Campbell’s mum!) was our local federal representative. I can remember walking out of my year 12 health exam into her office to outline the absurdities of the social security system, and the problems this created for students being able to access their higher education dreams. My advocacy efforts fell on deaf ears.

I commenced studying a Bachelor of Applied Science (Human Movement) at UniSA in 1999. The cost of living in Adelaide (in comparison to Melbourne) was a significant factor in this decision. During my first year of uni I worked 20+ hours per week, trained 15+ hours sport per week and had 30+ contact hours per week. I enjoyed the course, partied hard, ate poorly, slept little, and yet it all worked out. About a year and half later I could claim I was independent of my parents and qualified for Youth Allowance, assistance that would have been better received during my first year of uni. I completed my degree in 2001, at the same time my father completed his Bachelor of Arts.

I really enjoyed my course and became a bit of a uni junkie. I completed Honours in human movement on a part-time basis over two years, while simultaneously completing a fast-tracked (six units a semester) Bachelor of Education (secondary) on a full-time basis. I seemed to flourish on this over-loaded study commitment. The support of my family, friends and partner (now wife!) was instrumental at the time. By that stage my first child was on the way and I was very much looking forward to finding full-time employment. By chance, I was offered a well-funded PhD scholarship, which seemed a good idea at the time.

NCSEHE: The last time you were in Perth, you mentioned that completing your PhD was not exactly smooth sailing – an experience with which a lot of our readers will relate. What happened, and how exactly did you manage to finish your Doctorate?

James: I completed a PhD in men’s help-seeking practices as a cross enrolment between public health and medicine at the University of Adelaide. This was a rewarding experience, but was not without its challenges.

Completing an inter-disciplinary PhD can be difficult. A colleague and I wrote about these challenges as part of our respective journeys (sometimes it’s best not to raise these issues until after the fact). Expectations of supervisors can differ; there can be different epistemologies, ontologies and terminology to navigate; and further thought might need to be given to the presentation of data and findings. In retrospect, a carefully planned pathway can be beneficial in this regard.

A PhD is a commitment. Whilst I started on a full-time basis, I transitioned to part-time after about one and half years. The need for full-time employment to support the family took precedence. It took me eight years to complete (a length of time I had never anticipated). I found completing a PhD as a combination conventional-publication thesis was a useful strategy to get the job done!

I had a few supervision changes across the eight year period. With this brought new ideas and new directions. This is good but can change the trajectory of the research. It pays to keep this in mind.

Sometimes life just gets in the way. During my PhD I had a number of house moves (including an interstate move, and a move to very remote Australia), a second child, a wedding, eye surgery and a bunch of other things. Balancing study with other work and life priorities can be difficult. Support structures, such as friends and family, are critical for staying on track.

NCSEHE: The program you manage for Charles Darwin, the Whole of Community Engagement Initiative, was featured in our last case study publication, Partnerships in Higher Education. How is everything going? What have you learned as a result of engaging with remote communities?

James: Things are going really well. We have a talented and highly passionate team supporting the implementation of the Whole of Community Engagement (WCE) initiative.

There is significant diversity among remote and very remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. We recognise that there is no one way to undertake community engagement. Yet, we also recognise that good community engagement needs to be built from the bottom-up. Listening to the needs and aspirations of communities is fundamental to achieving this aim. A key learning is that it takes time to develop genuine and trusting relationships with remote Indigenous communities. From this, great things can happen. Small and steady steps are important.

Logistics of undertaking community engagement in very remote contexts in the NT is challenging. We regularly travel by 4WD and light aircraft to access the communities in which we work. We saw two cyclones hit the NT earlier this year, which obviously impacted upon the work in four of the six WCE sites.

We have employed a number of community-based Indigenous staff to support the initiative. They bring a depth of local Indigenous knowledge and experience in the contexts in which we are working. This supports the use of local languages, cultural-brokerage skills and enhanced both-ways learning opportunities throughout the WCE initiative. Less than a year after commencement, we have more Indigenous staff in our team than non-Indigenous staff (most of which are research active). This is an important consideration (and good role modelling) to build pathways for remote Indigenous communities to participate in higher education.

The journey is really only just beginning. Sustainability is the key.

NCSEHE: You and NCSEHE Director Professor Sue Trinidad have started work on a book chapter. Would you tell us a little about the book and when you expect it will be published? Who else has been invited to contribute?

James: The book will be about Indigenous pathways and transitions into higher education, and will build on evidence presented at a national forum to be held at the Australian Centre for Indigenous Knowledges in Education at Charles Darwin University in October of this year.

The chapter Professor Trinidad and I worked on during my visit to Perth involves examining the synergies and differences between broad equity, and more specific Indigenous, higher education agendas in Australia.

We anticipate that a number of scholars, particularly Indigenous students, academics and practitioners, will contribute original chapters to the book. These will be a mixture of life narratives, reflective stories, new and innovative research, recent program evaluations, and contemporary policy analyses. Each will assist in building a stronger evidence base about what works best to support Indigenous learners to participate in higher education.

Posted 25 June 2015 Posted in General, Indigenous, My Story, Regional