Kenisha Winunguj is a long way from her home in the remote community of Yirrkala in East Arnhem Land, but she is looking forward to entering her first year of university in Darwin next year.
“I’m excited and a little bit nervous,” Ms Winunguj said.
In 2020, she was one of eight students in Yirrkala who became the first in the community to graduate Year 12 with a tertiary admission score.
Since then, Ms Winunguj and five of those students have taken part in a pilot program at Charles Darwin University (CDU) which aimed to assist them in their transition to university by enabling them to study both on-country as well as on-campus in Darwin.
Program lead and CDU senior researcher Nicola Rolls said while starting university could be a stressful time for any new high school graduate, this group of students faced additional hurdles.
“[The students] are from a distinct cultural and language context where English is their additional language … this adds another layer to the challenges in reading and writing academic English,” Dr Rolls said.
“Being away from a place where they live close to family and close to culture is a big shift for them.”
The program was run in partnership with the Yirrkala-based group the Djalkiri Foundation and participants were supported by Yolngu mentors.
CEO of the Djalkiri Foundation, Rarrtjiwuy Melanie Herdman, said students studied a range of topics including academic language and essay writing.
“[Students could] support each other through assessment writing, research, Harvard referencing — things that we’re not exposed to in remote communities,” she said.
Students who participated in the program are pursuing degrees in a range of fields including law and education.
After participating in the program, Ms Winunguj said she plans to become a midwife.
“I’d like to go back home and work with young mothers [and] help them with their babies,” Ms Winunguj said.
In 2019, the Napthine review into tertiary education found people in regional and remote parts of Australia were less than half as likely to get a university degree compared to their city counterparts.
The review found the divide was even more stark when looking into participation rates for Indigenous students.
“CDU’s current Indigenous access and participation rates of around 9.9 per cent and 8 per cent respectively are above the sector average nationally,” Dr Rolls said.
“However, with the Indigenous population representing 30 per cent of the NT population overall, strategies and programs to increase the enrolment and success of NT Indigenous students in higher education are important.”
It is hoped the pilot will provide a model for future transition programs to help boost the enrolment of Indigenous students.