My Story: Jenny de Vries
Jenny de Vries has a background in primary education and banking and finance, and more recently has conducted research examining the relationship between professional learning and the integration of information and communications technology in the classroom. Jenny is one of the NCSEHE’s two doctoral students and is aiming to develop an evaluation framework for higher education equity initiatives.
NCSEHE: You are one of the centre’s two PhD students and a primary school teacher. What was it about teaching primary school students that interested you? What did you do before becoming a teacher?
Jenny: Well, it’s funny, my decision to go into education was the result of wondering what my child would be learning when he started school in 2009. I became a mother in my late 30s, and it had been too many years since I finished school. I was concerned that I wouldn’t know what he would be learning and, therefore, couldn’t help him with his homework, etc.
My life before teaching was varied. I had spent considerable time in banking and finance, working my way up through various levels of the business, including productivity management. I then had the opportunity to join an airline and led the cabin crew team for a number of years. I enjoyed meeting new people and discovering new places and cultures during my extensive travels throughout Australia, Asia and Europe.
NCSEHE: When did you decide to undertake a PhD?
Jenny: I decided to undertake this PhD after a meeting with NCSEHE Director Professor Sue Trinidad and Associate Professor Tania Broadley (Academic Lead, Curtin Learning Institute). In all areas of business and government today, shareholders and taxpayers expect that we justify funds invested; I was surprised that evaluation of university programs wasn’t more commonplace.
My study is important to me because of the nature of programs and people associated with it. I think it is important to share ideas, resources and good practice across the sector so that we can reach more people regarding undertaking and succeeding at university study.
NCSEHE: Your PhD study is tentatively titled Selecting and Embedding Equity Initiatives in Higher Education. Please tell us a little about what that means and what your intentions are for the project.
Jenny: Australian universities are now all running outreach, access and support programs aimed at bringing people from non-traditional backgrounds into higher education. It’s all good work with the best of intentions. My study aims to establish the grounds for determining the ways in which we measure success of these many and varied programs. At present, a significant amount of funding is provided by the Federal government, enabling many of these programs. The question I ask is, “If this funding disappears or is significantly reduced, how do universities choose which programs to maintain as part of their usual business?” It’s an important question. Without these programs, fewer opportunities and pathways would be available to potential and existing higher education students.
Equity programs within the higher education sector are vital to ensuring that students who make the commitment to undertake a degree are supported all the way through the experience.
NCSEHE: Researching equity in higher education at PhD level is quite a different challenge to primary school teaching. What inspired the change? Why equity?
Jenny: As we know, there is a big focus on encouraging people from under-represented backgrounds into university. The central line of thought is that a degree enables you to create a better life for yourself and (potentially) increase your lifetime earnings compared to if you don’t have a degree.
From time to time, when my research permits, I do relief teaching at a number of low SES schools. When I’m teaching, I see first-hand the struggles faced by families who are in a cycle of poverty and welfare. I believe higher education would improve the prospects for these groups of people. While children are young, they are so keen and enthusiastic; I think it is important to harness that and engage them all the way through school and hopefully through higher education.
NCSEHE: Have you experienced barriers to, or challenges associated with, higher education?
Jenny: I was born in South Africa during the apartheid era. My parents did not have the opportunity to go to university. It was difficult for my parents knowing that their children would not be given the same opportunities as others due to the colour of their skin; it influenced their decision to immigrate to Australia.
When I arrived in Australia, I attended a low SES government secondary school and going to university was not presented to us as an option. Knowing what I know now, my subject choices would not have gotten me into university even if it had been on my radar. Perhaps this reflects on the lack of emphasis on career development in schools in that era, who knows?
I am the first member of my family to undertake a university degree. I have to say, the first year of my degree was the worst. Not only was I experiencing a tremendous learning curve, but I also needed to understand and learn the language and experiences of university life. There were many times during my first year that I considered withdrawing and giving it all up. It was an understatement to say that I struggled.
NCSEHE: What helped you make it through your studies?
Jenny: I was lucky enough to meet some other mature age ladies who started at the same time as me, and we immediately clicked and became good friends and a crucial support network. We have still maintained that network since graduation.
I also found that the writing courses through the Learning Centre helped me to understand the requirements of academic writing. Another strategy I used was to talk to my tutors and seek clarification and feedback on assignments. I was fortunate to have Associate Professor Tania Broadley as my Honours supervisor, and the process of putting that study together was invaluable. Tania has become my mentor and friend. Again, this was very important to enhancing my personal experience of university and arriving at the end of my bachelor degree (relatively) sane.
It was also crucial to hone my time management skills. As a mother, wife and student, I have a lot going on. It was very important to me that I not sacrifice my personal life for a degree. Getting the balance right is an art form!
As a result of my experience being a mature age, first in family university student, I know just how important equity programs run within a university are to the people they support.
NCSEHE: What’s next for you? What do you think you’d like to do, post-PhD?
Jenny: I’d like to get a really great job paying a million dollars a year! Haha. 🙂
In all seriousness, I see myself as a Research Fellow within the NCSEHE and the higher education sector generally. I enjoy the research process and extending my knowledge in new areas so would like to continue to work in academia.
My family and I are settled in Perth, but we would happily consider moving if the right opportunities became available. There is no greater teacher than travel to broaden the mind, and we enjoy being immersed in new cultures and traditions.