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Professor Sarah O’Shea — Churchill Fellowship Project

To explore best practices in engaging and retaining students who are the first in their families to attend university — UK, Canada, USA

NCSEHE 2019 Research Fellow Professor Sarah O’Shea (University of Wollongong) was supported by the Churchill Trust to conduct an international Fellowship project, published this month.

Travelling to the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, Sarah witnessed and explored strategies that could be applied in an Australian higher education context to support First-in-Family students.

In Australia, approximately 51 per cent of our student population are ‘First-in-Family’ (FiF), a group recognised as having various issues impacting on their educational experiences. For example, FiF or ‘first gen’ students are often financially disadvantaged, may have limited understanding of university culture, and tend to be older and from more ethnically diverse backgrounds.

Through the Churchill Fellowship—awarded in 2017—I was given the unique opportunity to explicitly focus on ways to support and engage FiF students within a global context.

Drawing on practices in higher education institutions in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, the Fellowship proposes 13 recommendations underpinning approaches to supporting this population, broadly including the following points:

  • a common definition of the term ‘First-in-Family’ that is clearly articulated across policy and practices in the Australian higher education sector
  • the importance of celebrating FiF students’ successes timed to critical stages of the student life cycle (including gaining entry)
  • the need to foreground the FiF status of staff , alumni and also other students through visual identifiers; for example, badges and stickers.
  • targeted professional development for teaching and support staff designed to challenge assumptions or unconscious biases
  • scholarships and financial aid that provide access to key curricula activities such as student exchange/work placements or internships
  • careful review of institutional discourse to avoid unintentional ‘deficit’ — remove references to ‘support’, ‘help’ or ‘assistance’ and instead focus on ‘success’, ‘celebration’ and existing capability.


Video courtesy of Emma Robertson, Churchill Trust.

Despite their significant representation, FiF students remain relatively ‘invisible’ within the Australian higher education sector; my visits indicated, however, that in the UK, US and Canada this student group is a priority focus.

The most exciting thing about this Fellowship was to witness the passion and enthusiasm of others for this cohort across the UK, US and Canada. Discovering how this student population is not just supported but almost cherished across institutions was extremely validating for me both personally and professionally.

The final report is available here on the Churchill Trust website. 


Professor Sarah O’Shea has spent nearly 25 years working to effect change within the higher education sector through research that focuses on the access and participation of students from identified equity groups. Her institutional and nationally funded research studies (A$1.6 million) advance understanding of how underrepresented student cohorts enact success within university, navigate transition into this environment, manage competing identities and negotiate aspirations for self and others ( This work is highly regarded for applying diverse conceptual and theoretical lenses to tertiary participation, which incorporate theories of social class, identity work, gender studies and poverty. In 2016 she was awarded an ARC Discovery Project exploring the persistence behaviours of First-in-Family students and in 2017, obtained a Churchill Trust Fellowship to explore best practice in support strategies for students from equity groups, travelling to the UK, Canada and the US. Sarah is a Principal Fellow of Advance HE (UK), an Australian learning and Teaching Fellow and a 2019 Equity Research Fellow with the NCSEHE.

Posted 29 January 2019 Posted in General