Episode 186

Closing the Gap for Indigenous University Students

Recorded by | Run time: 24 min, 33 sec


Ben Lewis is the director of the Dandjoo Darbalung Indigenous access program at St Catherine’s College in WA. The program enables Indigenous university students to access college and tertiary education at Perth’s five leading universities.

Dandjoo Darbalung provides a wrap-around pastoral, cultural and academic program for Indigenous students so they can be successful at university.

With community support, Dandjoo Darbalung has delivered amazing results, improving academic outcomes for Indigenous students.

In this episode, Ben, originally a secondary teacher, talks about his experience completing his prac and working in a rural setting in Newman, WA. He also talks about the unique challenges faced by Aboriginal students when it comes to accessing tertiary education. Ben discusses the need for more Aboriginal professionals in the community, and how the program he oversees supports aboriginal students to reach their academic goals.

Ben Lewis Building Proud Aboriginal Students For the Love of Teaching St Catherine's Dandjoo Darbalung Wesley College

Want to find out more about closing the gap? The 2020 Closing the Gap Report outlines progress against targets set in 2008. It marks the twelfth time a report is tabled in Parliament on progress toward Closing the Gap.

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Full Episode Transcript – Closing the Gap for Indigenous University Students

We usually cast the spotlight on inspirational primary school teachers, but every once in a while, the achievements of a teacher from outside this realm warrant recognition. Today’s guest is Ben Lewis, who although was once a secondary teacher, has also worked in the primary sector. Ben’s now the director of the Indigenous Access program at st. Catherine’s College in Perth called Dandjoo Darbalung at St. Cat’s was established in 2012 and has achieved very successful results with 90% retention rate and 78% pass rate. The Dandjoo Darbalung program offers Indigenous residents a custom-designed support program, including an Indigenous cultural space with private study room in the college, a dedicated tutoring program for academic support to supplement what is offered at uni support with scholarships, a supportive community strengthening and developing identity and cultural leadership through participation in events, such as campfire circles with elders, cultural leadership, training, art projects, music and social events, mentoring other indigenous students in local and remote schools.

Since qualifying as a teacher roughly a decade ago, Ben’s made an amazing impression on so many young lives. I actually found out about the work Ben does through an email from one of his past students. Here’s Teila

I’m Teila. I’m currently studying at uni. Um, I met Ben during a five week intensive unit. And although I only had him for the five weeks, I found him really inspiring as a teacher and just his teaching journey he’s been on. Ben’s definitely a storyteller and has many stories to tell some funny, some sad, some inspiring. He also has the gift of the gab and loves to talk. So I think he would make the perfect guest for your podcast. He taught me for a five week intensive unit and in such a short time I found him really inspiring.

Bron: Welcome, Ben, and thanks. For joining me.

Ben: Thanks. Thanks for having me on the, on the show. I really appreciate it.

Ben’s Road to St Catherine’s – His Teaching Career Until Now

Bron: So you’ve obviously touched a lot of lives throughout your teaching career and since qualifying as a teacher, but you’ve made this great impression on so many people. I was just wondering if you could tell us starting at the beginning, how did you end up in this amazing role that you’re doing now and what led you to this point in your life? Yeah, I think, um, I guess I always wanted to be a teacher ever since I was quite young. Um, and I, I got distracted along the way and I kind of put that on the back burner and thought, okay, well maybe teaching is not for me.

And so I was doing my degree, uh, in politics and international relations and, um,  to get myself through university, I started doing swim teaching, uh, at the local pool. And I think from doing that and interacting with, with students there and being in that role of, of, of the teacher, um, it did inspire me to, to want to go further. And so once I finished my degree, uh, that’s when I did a Diploma of Education, to become a secondary school teacher. And, and whilst I was doing that diploma, that’s when the, the coordinator of the course actually said to me, uh, she said, I’ve got this amazing opportunity for you to, um, to consider.

Completing a Remote Teaching Prac in the Pilbara

And that was a rural prac, uh, up in the town of Newman in the Pilbara. Uh, and I didn’t have a lot of experience, uh, in terms of living outside the city. I felt very comfortable in the city and, uh, and I enjoyed all the conveniences of living in the city.  So I considered that then, um, I remember looking at a map, actually, I’m thinking, where is his Newman? And, uh, and I thought, I’d look around the coast of Australia. Um, optimistically thinking, as long as it’s near the water, uh, I will, I’ll be fine. Uh, and, and it was probably the furthest place away from the water. You can imagine if you, if you get on the plane in Perth and, and flew it to Broome, if you jump out halfway that you you’d probably land very close to Newman, um, 12 hours, yeah. 12 hours away from the city and, um, four hours away from the next biggest town. Uh, so that was, yeah, that was massive for me to, to land in this place and do my rural prac. Uh, but it was great. They, they offered me the opportunity to remain at the school for the rest of the year and, uh, complete my studies, uh, through correspondence from, uh, from Newman. And, um, I ended up staying for three years.

Bron: Wow. What a fantastic opportunity. And you just grabbed it and went with it.

Ben: Yeah. And I think people, I think a lot of prac students don’t realise that there are these opportunities out there. I mean, there are units that, that you can do during your prac, uh, during your, um, deploying deployment or your degree, um, that talk about teaching in rural locations. And, um, uh, but there are, there are amazing, they used to having prac students and making them feel welcome and, um, and assisting them in, in completing their degrees as well.

Bron: Yeah, that’s really cool. So what are some of the things that you absolutely fell in love with when you were teaching in Newman?

Working in a Remote Community as a Beginning Teacher

Ben: I love the students up there. That was the first thing. Uh, there seems to be, they seem to be very genuine and they seem to be a really strong sense of community. Um, they’re very suspicious of, of teachers when they first arrive in, in towns. Uh, I think because they have quite a high turnover of staff, um, students and staff can be quite suspicious of, of newcomers and, and thinking, how long are they going to the last for? Um, I remember a few occasions where, where teachers, it just didn’t work for them. And, um, and, and they left with very short notice. Uh, but yeah, once you, once you’re there for it, doesn’t take long once you’re there for a few months and they realise that your plan is to stay. Uh, they, they welcome you very much into the community.

Bron: Well, that’s awesome. Yeah. So, um, how, what sort of size, what kind of population does Newman have?

Ben: So without the, I mean, it’s a mining town, so they, they did have a fly in fly out population as well. Um, but I guess statically at that time, and it was during the mining boom as well. Uh, there was about 7,000 people, uh, that lived there. Uh, the school was about 140 students, uh, and there was about 20 staff as well. So a nice small now I realised at the time I thought that was quite large. Um, but now after working in schools that have had 2000 students in it, uh, it’s, it’s the community and, and, and being able to learn from each other. I mean, you, you really do learn very quickly because when you arrive, they, they just tell you what you have to teach. And even if it’s not in your area, um, if, if they need a teacher to teach maths and you’re a HASS teacher like myself, I’m a HASS teacher.

Uh, it’s, that’s what you do. And, um, so I found myself very quickly in the role of, um, computing, which I had no background in. I didn’t even know where to put the USB in the computer and I’m here. I was charge of the computing department. Um, but the, the students help too. And, um, and they knew the situation you’re in as well. And they did. They, they, they helped out as much as they could. And, um, in the end you find your feet and, uh, yeah, you, you, you get some wonderful feedback from students as well.

 Country Prac or Country Service as Options for Preservice Teachers

Bron: Say if there’s a student teacher listening now and they’re in their final year, or they’re in, they’re doing a Grad Dip Ed, they’re heading out on prac, would you recommend doing country service, doing rural service to young teachers? Because I know that we have such a huge rural area. We don’t have enough teachers to cover the number of schools and number of students in the Bush. Um, so they’re crying out for teachers. Do you think that’s a good, a good decision having been there and had the experience you’ve had?

Ben: Yeah, I think it’s, I think that would be the easiest choice for someone to make is to go rural and to experience it. It is going to be challenging. It is going to take you out of your comfort zone. Um, but people will look after you and the communities will look after you and, and the things you will learn there would take you like my three years in Newman, I’m sure that taught me that 10 years worth of stuff, um, that I would have learned in the city. Um, it’s dealing with, with finance, dealing with the principal, it’s all very hands on because there’s so few of you in a school, you learn these leadership skills, you learn these accountability skills. You, you learn how to be an effective teacher, um, because that’s necessity. Like you need to, you need to think as you go, you need to be one step in front of the students.

Um, when you’re standing up there at the board, um, you need to be ready to engage. I was trying to become a secondary, yet I spent so much time in Newman with, with primary school students. Um, it’s, it is, it’s, it, it feels so daunting at the time, but, um, yeah, I, if I could say anything to prac students considering it is that you will be looked after, uh, and they will love having you there because they need teachers out in these schools and they made capable teachers who are, who have got big ideas and who have that energy. Um, and I’ve seen so many prac teachers that had that energy. Uh, and, and that’s where I’m lucky with working in Notre Dame, um, university with final year students. Um, they, they do have that passion and, and yeah, just, I guess, almost advertising the, the opportunities that are out there, um, is, is really special.

Ben’s Experience Working at Notre Dame University with Indigenous University Students

Bron: Yeah. So that’s something that additional that you did while you were working at Wesley College, a five-week course that you were doing with those students. So tell us about that.

Ben: Yeah. So again, just opportunities come. So, so someone gave me a call  from Notre Dame University. They heard about my experience and what I was doing. Um, and they asked me that was within one year of coming down to the city and working at Wesley, they asked me to teach this, um, working with Aboriginal students course. Um, and so I think most universities, these days have a compulsory unit that, that deals with working with Aboriginal communities and Aboriginal students, um, Notre Dame does a five-week intensive course. Uh, and so doing that, um, it does, it’s almost like therapy for me because I can go down there. And as a teacher teaching every day, I can, every week that I met the students, I could tell them, um, what was happening in, in the school and what was happening in the community. And, and so when I was reading the curriculum, um, being able to, to give real life stories about how that actually looks in a classroom, um, gave me, I got really good feedback, um, from, from the students and sometimes really confronting feedback because at the university, they actually fill in, feedback and, and they hand writers as well as give you back a multi choice, um, reference as well.

I was teaching 120 students in the, um, in the five-week course. And yeah. Sometimes to get 120 personal feedbacks, it was like, “wow”. Um, um, but yeah, it’s still overwhelmingly positive and it was, it gave me the opportunity to say this is, I mean, there’s not many of us that are doing it. Um, the, exactly the same working in an independent school with Indigenous students, there’s probably a team of about eight of us at eight different schools. Um, so sometimes that could feel really, yeah. And the side to be able to meet passionate young teachers who, who were inspired by the possibilities of working with Indigenous students in, in communities. Um, that was a really important five weeks for me every year.

It was a, it was a time that I really looked forward to. And yeah, I mean, really it’s often teaching is a thankless job and, you, sometimes you work really, really hard and you might be up until eight, nine, 10, 11, that’s still at the school working, at night and then having to get up in the morning and then to deal with a difficult parent or to deal with the difficult behaviour at school. Um, it is, it, it can feel like you’re not getting any form of acknowledgement or thanks.

Changing Lives and Inspiring Indigenous University Students

So when you called me and said these students had some, had, had, um, got in touch with you that that was really special for me. And, yeah, it doesn’t come often, but when they do that, it really puts you back on track and you realise that you’re doing something that is actually having an impact.

Bron: Yeah. You could just, I could just tell that you really inspired her. And I think for anyone in life, we all, we always remember that one or two teachers that gave us that golden sort of key to enable us in, in our life as educators or in other careers. Um, and I think that it’s pretty exciting to be reminded that that, that you’re that for someone else. And, um, I think that you’ve been that for a lot of people now, we haven’t really had a chance to talk about St Cat’s yet!

Ben: I’ve moved on to have an amazing group of tertiary students who I work with. Um, and, and they’re doing amazing things as well. We’ve just arrived back. Um, uh, just at the end of last week from Kalgoorlie, um, we traveled seven hours out to, uh, to the community of Kalgoorlie. And they, they were there teaching students, and inspiring students, hopefully that university is an option. Um, and, and being a, I mean, the students at St Catherine’s, uh, studying to be doctors and lawyers and teachers and architects, and, um, they’re, they’re going to be the next leaders of our community. And, um, and to have them want to go back, like we did that during their holidays to go out to communities and work, not just with high school students, but primary school students as well. Um, that’s, they cause sometimes we can live in a bit of a bubble when you’re at a university.

The university can be a bit fancy at times. Um, our students have formal dinners and I wear their academic gowns and all that type of thing. It’s important to remember that there are communities that aren’t doing as well as, as where they students have come from, um, to get a student to university takes, takes a whole community. And, um, and sometimes I meet a student who I think, how did you get here? How did you, how were you the student in your year group at a remote school? And how did you do your university entrance exams and, and get into university? Like, that’s, that’s a remarkable journey for some of these students and that’s a journey I get to share.

Challenges for Indigenous University Students

Bron: What are some of the challenges for Indigenous University Students when it comes to education on a tertiary level? What are the challenges that they face that other students, other teenagers wouldn’t be facing?

Ben: Yeah, I think there are so many challenges and, and what I’ve found in it with working with Indigenous communities, they are so resilient and so strong. Um, and, and if a student comes from a rural community and is coming down to the city, you’ve got all those, those normal changes, challenges of knowing what buses to take, um, knowing where, where, how to do your laundry, um, how to order or pack lunch if you’re going out to, to university during the day, um, all those normal things. So, so we start off with an intensive two-week orientation period before the official orientation week. And, um, and we go out and, and we help with, with knowing which buses, how to get a, a travel card in order to travel on those buses. Um, and then we have the cultural aspect. Um, the students are coming off country to learn.

So, so they need to know who the local people are. They need to learn, they need to meet some of the local elders. They need to, in some circumstances, they’ll need to have their rooms smoked,  and seen, so they’ll need to touch base, uh, touch base with the local community and know what areas you’re allowed to go to and what areas you’re not allowed to go to. And know our people are incredibly strong culturally and, and have a strong language. And, and so to be able to feel welcomed in this very foreign place, um, is important as well. And then you’re talking about, um, some of, many of our students have suffered trauma. Um, and that’s, unfortunately that’s the case with a lot of Indigenous communities. They suffer a high level of trauma and, um, and that’s not their fault that comes from many years of, of government policies that have, um, taken away culture, taken away language, um, and, and even taken away those relationships they have with their own families.

And so you’re bringing them down into incredibly stressful environment of a, of a tertiary education living in this case, a residential community. And, um, so accessing counsellors, healers, um, local medical support, uh, all those types of things needs, need to be taken into account as well. And then above all that, you, you have to realise that if they’re receiving ABSTUDY, they’re on $48 a fortnight. Um, so you’ve got all these services that the students need. And they’re trying to make that work on $48. It doesn’t get you your phone credit and your travel card. It’s, it’s often a choice between a mobile or a phone card. Should I get phone credit time or should I get my travel card?

Bron: Did not realise it was that low.

Ben: Yeah, yeah, yeah. $48 a fortnight. So that’s where, I mean, again, a big part of my new role is maintaining scholarship providers who are supporting these students.

Financial Pressures on Indigenous Uni Students

Um, but again, I mean often, I mean, even ABSTUDY sometimes takes eight, 10 weeks for it to be, to kick him. And so that’s, that’s 10 weeks of nothing. And, um, and then yeah, also helping with those scholarships. So we make it work and St Catherine’s is a, they’re a charity who, who supports, um, Aboriginal students then non Aboriginal students from around  to attend the university. And they, I mean, to be able to work for such an amazing, um, charity is, is, yeah, it’s a, it’s a real blessing for me. And it is it’s, it’s a place where students, again, from, from all backgrounds to come and, and there are scholarships available for them. I mean, the majority of students need scholarships in order to live at a residential college.

Bron: Even, um, you know, even textbooks and things like that. Like everyday needs of uni students costs are quite high. So it’s amazing that you have those, um, supporters that are so generous and, and also the scholarships that you’re able to offer.

Impact 100 Western Australia

Ben: Yeah, definitely. And that’s, I mean, the community really identifies that need, we have a group called Impact 100 Western Australia who is a group of 100 now more than 100, but 100 people that give a thousand dollars, um, which turns into a hundred thousand dollars. And last year St Catherine’s was lucky enough to receive that hundred thousand dollars. Um, and that was there to provide a university welcome pack. Um, and so that included everything from sheets and pillowcases and bedding, uh, laundry powder, um, toothpaste, all that type of thing, a laptop, computer, um, access to tutoring. Um, and, and the ladies and gentlemen who are part of that organisation, they actually came into the college and made up 50 beds. Um, so, so they actually unpack the sheets, they made up the beds. And, and I recently, um, said to the group, I was like that “The money’s important. Yes. But the fact that you came in and you made the beds, and when students arrived, I could say that these, this organisation cares for you and now, and, and wants you to succeed so much that they’re willing to come in and, and make your beds for you. Um, so you know what it looks like, you know, what’s expected, um, that’s, that’s an amazingly powerful thing to feel welcomed into a community in that way.”

Bron: There’s that personal touch instead of just a pack on a, on a mattress, it was all, yeah. I just wanted to talk to you about the outcomes for Indigenous students that are at the college, because I know that you guys are keeping track since 2012 St. Catherine’s became what it is now tracking the progress and the success of your students. So can you explain to us what your findings have been over those years?

Ben: Yeah, so it’s, it’s, it’s amazing how much change can occur, um, with adding that extra support. When, when you have a, I mean, St Catherine’s very similar to, to Wesley, um, has a designated area where students can access, it’s a culturally secure space where, where they can access all sorts of support. Like, like we’ve been talking about anything from academic, cultural, medical, um, even to talk to online, online with ABSTUDY and, um, and having that there, having the community, I mean, it’s 95 students, Indigenous students in a population of just over 400. Um, you, you’re getting very close to 25% of the population and that’s not reflected in the outside community. Um, and so to be able to have, um, that, that level of, um, reconciliation and that level of, participation, is remarkable. And, and we can say that in our results, I mean, from a 90% retention rate, um, normally outside of the college, that’s down to 46%, um, and even higher than the non-Indigenous participation rate as well.

St Cat’s as a Model For Future Indigenous Access Programs

Uh, and so, so we know, um, we know it’s working and, and, and there are, there are members in government that know that it’s working as well. Um, just recently St Catherine’s has, um, has been awarded the opportunity to open up another campus at another university in Western Australia. So that’s going to be another 450 beds. Um, and, and we’re going to work really hard with, with Curtin University, and with the government to, to try to raise the funds to, to create another program, um, over there, because we know it works, the students know it works. And I mean, if we can have just a few more Indigenous teachers graduating and, and working, and we do, we’ve already got, um, graduates who are working in schools, um, that’s a remarkable achievement. We, we need more Aboriginal doctors, we need more Aboriginal teachers.

Um, and, and it’s definitely started. And, and it’s not just a UWA in St. Catherine’s College. There are other programs who are starting to see what works and identifying that what’s working, uh, and hopefully, uh, in the very near future, we’re seeing a lot more success and, and a lot more numbers getting into these, um, these professions, because numbers count. I mean, going back to Wesley College, you can’t have a program at a school like that with seven or eight kids. Um, you need 20, 30, 40 kids, um, because you need those families supporting each other. You need those students supporting each other. You can feel isolated. Um, in these environments, you need to know you’re part of something bigger. Uh, and, and that’s what we’re seeing at the university level as well.

Bron: It’s a, it’s an amazing program. I hope to see it replicated in all of the capital cities in Australia. I really appreciate you joining me on the podcast and explaining the program.

Ben: Nice. Thanks for the opportunity. It’s um, yeah, like we’ve been talking about it’s, it’s so important to be able to, to share success and to share our stories. So thanks for the opportunity to come along and talk with everyone.


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