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You are reading: Shifts in space and self: Moving from community to university

Sarah O’Shea (University of Wollongong), Erica Southgate (University of Newcastle), Ann Jardine (University of New South Wales), Shamus Smith, (University of Newcastle) and Janine Delahunty, (University of Wollongong)

Executive Summary

University enrolments have grown at an unprecedented rate over the last decade and this participation is only set to increase (Kemp & Norton, 2014; Universities Australia, 2015). However, rates of completion during the same period have remained relatively static, and the numbers of students who depart university remains significant, consistently hovering between 15–18 per cent of the total Australian student population (Higher Education Standards Panel, 2018). Disproportionate numbers of these early leavers are from rural and remote areas, so exploring how regional and remote learners consider their post-schooling futures can provide some insight into the fundamental issues behind this attrition.

In addressing the rates of attrition from university, a better understanding of the ‘lived experiences’ of learners is required (West, 1996; O’Shea, 2007, 2014). This research project employed a digital storytelling methodology to foreground the cognitive, affective and embodied nature of this university experience (O’Shea, Harwood, Kervin, & Humphry, 2013). For students from regional and remote regions the movement into higher education requires not only a geographic shift but also changes to both identity and relationships (Holt, 2008). Drawing upon a combination of interviews, focus groups and also digital storytelling, this project sought to deeply investigate two key areas. The first relates to how young people from rural and remote areas contemplate post-schooling options and the second area of exploration was the subjective experience of both considering and actually moving into the university space.

Our research points to the deeply embodied nature of this shift and how young people themselves reconcile the changes and adaptations such movements require. Interviews and focus groups complemented the digital stories, which enabled participants to narrate their own experiences incorporating a range of media including oral, written and pictorial representation. This audio-visual genre is produced via accessible software and in a diversity of formats ranging from voice-over PowerPoint photos to edited videos, interview style (iMovie) to light-weight animations with voice-overs.

This project was guided by three interrelated questions:

  1. How do young regional/remote people articulate their movement into the university environment and the roles of their community/family in this process?
  2. How do these young people understand themselves as university learners and how do these perceptions evolve throughout the first year of study?
  3. How do members of regional/remote communities articulate the influences or impacts brought by these young people back to their communities of origin?

This was a three-staged study, and each of the questions was addressed through discrete activities associated with each stage:

Stage 1: Digital storytelling workshops were offered to commencing Year 11 students as part of the ASPIRE regional outreach program, seven high schools agreed to be involved.  These digital storytelling workshops were themed as “ASPIRing for my/our future” and each session encouraged Year 11 participants to consider their plans post Year 12. A total of 26 digital stories were created and these were complemented by interviews with the young people and focus groups with their teachers in order to deeply explore how participants considered movements beyond high school and how this impacted the general community.

Stage 2: The next stage of the project involved current university students in the design, scripting and production of one digital story. These stories were complemented by blog entries that explored the following themes: i) arriving at university and being a student; ii) moving between university and community, and iii) reflecting on the first year.

Stage 3: The final stage of the project involved in-depth analysis of the stories including textual analysis of the scripts. In order to do justice to the multiplicity of perspectives and open up the analytic possibilities, each of the stories was examined in a multi-variegated way. This process began with the naming and categorisation of the visual data and scripts to create thematic codes using interpretivist frameworks. The analysis explored how students convey their experiences of moving between the university and their community.

The summary findings from this study are detailed below:

  • The very embodied nature of this movement away from the community and the ways in which this was conceived by young people in terms of ‘hardship’ or difficulty rather than being a positive rite of passage.
  • The complexity of transitions between the homeplace and the world that exists beyond the confines of rural community settings, these transitions were not only defined by geography but also, defined in terms of relationships and identity formation.
  • Perceptions amongst young regional people that university was not necessarily for “people like them”; a sense that attending higher education was an “exceptional” rather than an “expected” life course trajectory.
  • The ways in which the desire to “give back” to the community informed post schooling decisions about attending university and also, what to study.

Access the full report: Shifts in space and self: Moving from community to university.

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