New focus on learning as Indigenous students walk strong towards their futures | UniSC | University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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New focus on learning as Indigenous students walk strong towards their futures

School was once the last place some of the 60 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Year 7 and 8 students taking part in a pilot program called Marigurim-Yan (‘Strong Walk’) said they wanted to be.

Now, after four semesters of activities and workshops in Fraser Coast schools, attendance is up, engagement with learning has improved, and they are setting goals that include leadership roles and university degrees.

“It has been such a turnaround,” said Dr Sharon Louth, the academic lead of the project facilitated by UniSC Fraser Coast in partnership with the local community, Butchulla Elders and regional high schools, with funding through the Federal Government’s Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program.

“It gives me goosebumps to hear them go from saying such things as ‘I hate school’ and being disengaged to now wanting to work towards becoming a school leader or staying at school so they can get a degree to work in the medical field.”
- Dr Sharon Louth

Marigurim-Yan included a series of workshops across two clusters of students in Maryborough and Hervey Bay to first establish a sense of self-belief, belonging and identity through cultural activities that included traditional language and dance, delivered by Butchulla Elders and community members.

The focus next turned to goal setting and capacity building to support learning goals at school. An Opportunities Expo at UniSC’s Fraser Coast campus also provided opportunities to engage and identify with people of all ages in careers and roles who could guide and inspire them.

“We hope to continue this across Fraser Coast schools next year, and believe it offers a potential model for communities across Australia,” Dr Louth said.

“At its core, it works to create a culturally safe space where self-esteem and confidence can grow, greater engagement with school is nurtured, and growth mindsets about future education and career options, not only for students but also their parents and carers, are encouraged,."

The results have been extremely encouraging. Many students have reported a greater understanding of the opportunities available to them and the steps they need to take to achieve their goals.

“One student who completed the strengths and weaknesses activities identified he liked playing the didgeridoo, so he has now found an avenue at school to learn and that has made him attend more often. And because he’s successful in this, he’s keen to learn and engage more in other areas,” Dr Louth said.

“Another student who said she only came to school to use the art supplies because she liked to draw parts of the body, is now considering doing paramedicine, because she now has that picture in her mind of the value of learning anatomy, physiology and biology and where it can take her.”

The final Marigurim -Yan activity was a three-day intensive camp on country at UniSC’s K’gari Research Centre.

Project team member and Wiradjuri man, Barry Bird, who has spent almost five decades as a teacher in mainstream and special education, said the camp gave the young teens time and space – free from outside distractions – to think about themselves, what they want in their lives and the paths to take.

“It is very difficult with young people at that age to actually get them to sit down and think about their goals and aspirations, but with this program, the penny has dropped, and that’s what makes it worthwhile,” he said.

“It was also about challenging them to think about their actions and the everyday choices they make.

“We used the analogy of walking down the same road every day and falling down the same hole. They got to identify what their ‘hole in the road’ might be, and to realise that by taking the same path, the same thing was going to happen every time, but there were other options.

“We’ve seen such growth in confidence, socially and in terms of responsibility, and in wanting to set goals and succeed. They’re really opened their minds to what their futures can be.”

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