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My Story: Diane Costello

Dr Diane Costello, a Research Officer with the NCSEHE, has over 14 years of experience in the higher education sector. During this time, she has undertaken a variety of research projects, consultancies and teaching positions in the field of community psychology. The majority of Diane’s projects have involved applied research with Indigenous, regional and remote communities, guided by a social justice analytical framework. We sat down with Diane to find out more about her work in higher education and her passion for social justice.

NCSEHE: Please tell us a little about yourself. Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school?

Diane: I grew up in Burma at a time when it was a cohesive, multicultural society and where all children played together on very large paved streets adorned by rows of almond trees. As you can imagine, we ate a lot of almonds but what is most memorable is the multitude of religious and cultural celebrations that provided us with the opportunity to learn and appreciate human differences and to sample all the delicious food and sweets. It was so much fun to be a child roaming the streets in search of new adventures.

One day all that changed when the Burmese Junta took over government and people like my family, with European and Asian heritage, were being stripped of their identity. For my dad, the only choice was to migrate to Australia, so his children had better opportunities in life.

We arrived at a time when white Australia policy was dominant, and integration into Australia was a success. The transition was made easy by the fact that our first language was English, our religion Catholic and Dad got a job in the first week as an electrician.

Although I had a good command of the English language, I remember how hard it was to understand the Aussie accent and it took me a while to communicate with the other kids. It was also harder to make friends at school, there seemed to be a cultural gap in the way children formed friendship groups. Rather than torment myself with working out the code to which group I belonged in, I decided to focus on being academically the best.

Although I had the capacity to go to university, I remember that the only aspiration I had was to be a secretary and a mother. This was the expectation my mother had for me, and I just seemed to go along with it.

NCSEHE: Something evidently changed for you, as you now hold a Bachelor of Science (Psychology) (First Class Honours) and a PhD, the thesis for which focused on globalisation, sustainability and social justice. How did you end up at university? What first attracted you to the field of Psychology, and how did you then branch out into social justice?

Diane: I was attracted to the field of Psychology because I was beginning to feel emotionally torn between wanting to be a good mother and feeling empty that something was missing from my life. I thought that if I studied Psychology, I would be able to understand myself better and have the knowledge I needed to nurture my children toward greater life choices.

In my second year of study, I came across an inspirational Professor who opened my eyes to the field of Community Psychology, which embraces the values of social justice. He demonstrated how change could be instituted at the societal level to help people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Hence, instead of just focussing on changing the individual, we could promote interventions at the policy level which would be more effective at dealing with disadvantage at the community and societal level.

As a researcher and a practitioner working mainly in disadvantaged communities, the field of Community Psychology felt like the most appropriate field to deal with systemic injustices.

NCSEHE: Where has your work led you, over the years?

Diane: I started my career with a project in regional farming communities where most farmers were facing bankruptcy due to numerous local and global impacts outside their control. This issue required a systemic change at the national level. However, the government response was minuscule compared to the impacts farmers suffered to their identity including the sheer devastation of their social and community infrastructure. The project was about empowerment of people and communities, through the formation powerful social networks and lobbying of governments for better social and economic policy responses for the regions.

A consultation project which left me questioning my capacity to work in the field of social justice involved understanding the community safety issues in four remote Indigenous communities. While theft was highlighted as the biggest concern for the non-Aboriginal community members, Aboriginal men, women and children lived in overcrowded dilapidated dwellings where the summer heat can reach 48 plus degrees. Many children lived in poverty and hunger was constant. For many, there was no escape from family and domestic violence. While some communities had a strong presence of health and community service agencies including Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal advocates, the system of governance was still largely bureaucratic in practice. Hence, change is very slow as the entry points for the empowerment of Aboriginal people to determine their life aspirations. Although I believe that much has happened in this space, there is still much work ahead for social justice.

I was most inspired when I got involved with a community-led ‘clean energy conservation project’ where the local community convinced the government energy agency to enable the operation of ‘wind power’ generation in their community. The community proactively established an egalitarian governance process with the energy power company on decisions concerning their community. This empowered community addressed issues at the systemic level and was able to make decisions as equal partners about the community’s future.

NCSEHE: Working in regional and remote communities can be quite different to working in metropolitan areas. What was that experience like for you and what were your biggest learnings?

Diane: Working in regional and remote communities was very confronting for me. I was not prepared for the sheer magnitude of inequity that existed between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. The level of disadvantage experienced by Aboriginal people in many of the regional and remote communities shocked me, and I felt very powerless. The issues required holistic solutions in tandem with community empowerment processes. While I witnessed some great examples of community-led solutions, the issues appeared overwhelming to me. I was just so inspired by the numerous Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal social activists who are committed to tackling the social issues for the long haul.

The biggest lesson that I learned is that while I can advocate for more appropriate policy responses, the fight for change must be led by leaders in partnership with the community. The key partnership role to be played by governments and researchers is to provide the expertise and resources necessary to tackle the social injustices facing disadvantaged communities.

NCSEHE: At the moment, your work with the NCSEHE is focused on a recently-funded National Priorities Pool project. Would you discuss the project and what the benefits and outcomes of the research are likely to be?

Diane: Currently, I work in an arena that addresses the systemic impediments to equity in higher education. It is very fulfilling to know that the National Centre undertakes and collates research identifying the systemic barriers and enablers from K-12 years through to tertiary education in terms of access, transition, success and graduate outcomes.

I am very privileged to work on projects that are geared toward providing knowledge that can be applied in the field to further the role of equity policy and practice in promoting participation and success in higher education by equity students.

Our current project, which is a collaboration between the NCSEHE and Queensland University of Technology, focusses on examining differences between urban and regional/remote students’ decision-making processes in terms of higher education access and participation. The current finding is that students in regional and remote areas are less likely than urban students to participate in higher education despite being involved in numerous and long-term outreach interventions. Our project seeks to understand the differences between urban and regional and remote students in terms of the factors that facilitate and impede higher education participation. The hope is that outreach programs can be manipulated to deliver the best outcomes for students from regional and remote areas.

NCSEHE: What has been the most fulfilling aspect for you of working with the NCSEHE?

Diane: It is very fulfilling to know that the research centre you are working in advocates for higher education aspiration and participation for students from low SES backgrounds including persons with disability, Indigenous Australians, regional and remote students and those from non-English speaking backgrounds.

I am very proud to be part of a collaborative team that works to compile and promote the latest research findings on the factors that promote and impede higher education participation for students from a variety of equity backgrounds. Working on issues that pertain to addressing the systemic impediment and promoting the educational needs of equity groups to succeed in Australia is very rewarding.

NCSEHE: From all of the reading and research you’ve done in the student equity space, what would you say are some of your primary learnings? Has anything specific surprised you?

Diane: I believe that the major accomplishments in the equity space have occurred as a result of the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP). HEPPP has enabled universities to initiate programs focused on maximising the exposure of students from low socio-economic status backgrounds – including those from regional and remote communities – to the opportunities that higher education has to offer.

I think a key component with HEPPP programs is the focus on multi-level partnerships with parents, schools, institutions and organisations at the community and state level. This process of community-level empowerment with its strong social capital base has enabled higher education aspirations to become more accessible and realistic for parents and students, helping them to make informed career decisions that involve university education. I believe it is the partnership process that has made the difference to interventions being successful for people from diverse equity backgrounds that require holistic and long-term solutions.

Posted 6 January 2017 Posted in General, Indigenous, My Story, Regional