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Teaching universities how to roll out the welcome mat for everyone.

Associate Professor Sarah O’Shea has more in common with the students for whom she advocates than they may think. As one of the first in her family to go to university, she understands the pressures, the expectations and the challenges that often accompany this achievement.

And helping those students, as well as those who come from other diverse backgrounds, is her passion.

“The ‘first in family’ to go to university is a really interesting label,” says Professor O’Shea, who researches educational access and equity in her role at UOW’s School of Education.

“It is actually something that should be celebrated rather than a deficit label that impacts negatively on students. In fact, 51 per cent of university students in Australia now are the first in their family to go on to tertiary education.”

Sense of belonging

As a young undergraduate in the United Kingdom, Professor O’Shea says she probably had it a little easier than Australian students breaking through the barrier to university education.

“At that point I was the first-in-family myself, but for me it was quite different,” she says. “I did my undergraduate degree in the UK and was one of only 40 students in my degree year. At that time we all had a tutor who was an academic member of staff, and we would see that tutor every couple of months.

“And everyone around me was going through the same thing as I was. We had access to that tutor and we were well supported, but that is not the reality now, and I suppose that is part of the reason I think I am so passionate about this issue.

“There were times during my undergraduate degree that I felt like I didn’t belong at university, but it was often those closest to me who would pull me through. I also realised there were a lot of people looking at me [to see if I would succeed].

“That is another thing about being first-in-family – there are a lot of witnesses and there is a sense of responsibility to achieve.”

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A large part of the work in which she is now involved is trying to help first-in-family students, like herself, stay at university and educating institutions on how to support these students to graduate.

“As part of the research I have been involved in, we interviewed and surveyed students across three universities and found that around 50 per cent of those first-in-family students had considered leaving,” she says.

“The students in this study talked about being grateful [for being at university] and many had a low sense of belonging. This impacts on your behaviour, especially your help-seeking behaviour, in that these students often feel they can’t, or shouldn’t, ask for help.

“The results were not that surprising. Over the years I have heard many stories about this low sense of belonging and the fact these students felt it was them who had to change to fit into the institution and not the other way around.”

That is another thing about being first-in-family - there are a lot of witnesses and there is a sense of responsibility to achieve.

Associate Professor Sarah O'Shea

Family support

One of the key elements that can help those students who feel that sense of disconnection to the university culture is their families, Professor O’Shea says.

“In times of difficulty who do you turn to? The top two responses we received were ‘self’ and ‘family’. These answers came across quite overwhelmingly in the interviews and narratives we collected from students, not just for young students but for mature-age students as well,” she says.

“It’s really quite simple and it is one of the things that I have talked about with institutions as part of my current Australian Teaching and Learning Fellowship – this need to engage with family and community and to involve them in the journey of students because they are key to their success.

“Often in the research literature, family of those students who are the first to attend university are painted in a negative light. They are seen as less than positive about a family member going to university, but that is not necessarily the case. Family members can also be key supporters of students and their educational ambitions.”

Humbling experiences

Professor O’Shea’s interest in helping students of diverse backgrounds achieve an education started more than 20 years ago, when she first began teaching in Australia as a young Irish traveller.

“I left Ireland in the early 1990s because I wanted go travelling. I landed in Sydney, like most young travellers. I thought Sydney was beautiful, but I also came with no presumptions. At the time I left Ireland it was still very white Anglo-Saxon, so to me, anyone from a different culture was really interesting.

“I got my first job teaching young people who had been disengaged from learning. I had a young man who had come out of the prison system, a Greek girl who had been expelled from her school and a couple of boys with disabilities. I think I got through that job because of my youth and the fact that I was new to the country and really had no idea what things like being Greek in Australia meant.”

It was after that initial baptism of fire that Professor O’Shea began working in the adult education field, developing her skills in research-informed practice.

I started in adult education about 20 years ago working with migrants and refugees. It helped me to see what a difference it made to give people an insight or knowledge in how systems work and how they could succeed.

Associate Professor Sarah O'Shea

She was working in Bankstown in Sydney’s south-west at that time, which was then a growing area and one of the main regions in which migrants and refugees were being re-settled.

“The work I was doing was related to employment and a program called Skill Share. It was more to do with language and social integration and understanding cultures, and I was working with a very diverse group of people who often didn’t have any literacy or speak any English as it was not their first language,” she says.

“It was very rewarding work. I think it was about seeing people blossom and grow and hearing their stories. People’s stories are very important in my research, and it is here that I got very interested in how to help people from these diverse backgrounds to succeed.

“Their resilience and faith in themselves humbles you. These people are so grateful to be given an opportunity in Australia and are so keen to give back.”

From her work in Bankstown, Professor O’Shea went into the TAFE sector working with Vocational Education, again largely with people with low levels of literacy and numeracy. She then made her way into the university sector, firstly in Newcastle working in the area of development services for people entering tertiary education from low-socioeconomic backgrounds, and now at the University of Wollongong.

“I think [it was when I started working in the vocational sector] that I thought I needed to go back and get more qualifications. Often with adult education it is something that people just fall into. I started exploring more formal educational avenues and was very aware that I needed to [do something] around learning about cultural differences.

“I had an undergraduate degree in communication and language and had done a Masters degree in Ireland, but I wanted to do something more, so I completed a Masters in Applied Linguistics,” she says.

Then, in 2009, Professor O’Shea completed her PhD, which explored how older female learners, all of whom were first in their family to attend university, managed their transition into this environment, among many competing demands.

It is something that should be celebrated rather than a deficit label that impacts negatively on students. In fact, 51 per cent of university students in Australia now are the first in their family to go on to tertiary education.

Associate Professor Sarah O'Shea

Creating pathways

Since 2011, Professor O’Shea has received more than $850,000 research funding from a variety of sources, including commercial interests, national competitive funding and institutional funding, all of which highlight the underlying importance of her work in ensuring Australia’s university students can remain as diverse and supported as possible.

She has been also been part of a research partnership with the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience since 2011, a national program that supports Indigenous students to aspire to tertiary education and continue in it when they enter university.

In 2015, Professor O’Shea was awarded an Australian Government Teaching Fellowship, which has allowed her to work with universities across Australia exploring ways to engage with the family and community of first-in-family learners.

The Fellowship has also collaboratively developed the National Principles for Engaging and Retaining First-in-Family Learners and their Families, as well as a suite of web resources targeting family and community members of commencing first-in-family students.

“There are things like quizzes on how they may support their learner in staying at university and feeling like they belong,” Professor O’Shea says.

“It will help them unpack the university environment, because if people haven’t been here before they can be very worried about it. So far the feedback we have had from learners is that these resources have been very helpful.”

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