‘Indigenous Australians have been mistreated throughout history by researchers, anthropologists, even historians. People coming in and taking data, taking things away and never bringing anything back.
My thesis was never trying to define what Indigenous identity is, but what student identity is, and how it is affected by indigeneity.
For some people going to university is not a reality. There is a lack of expectation, a lack of encouragement.
Sometimes, university can be seen as a ‘white man’s world’, and students may want to go, but their families are not supportive.
Some students get tremendous support from families and communities to go. Some don’t. It’s about understanding these realities.
‘One approach does not fit all, and we cannot treat everyone as part of one big group.’
Education policy in Australia is based on measuring success by completions, but what goes into that? How do we get them there?
For minority populations, such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, there are assumptions about what works and how we can facilitate success. Sometimes those assumptions can be distant from the reality for students, and there is a disconnect between what we think works and what actually works.
The assumption is that if you come from a non-dominant, non-mainstream background into a mainstream institution, ‘the University’, which is formed around the laws and practices of the dominant society, you will be completely disorientated, and need help and support to succeed.
Many of our university services are formed around this assumption. We have specialised services to help you because you come from a minority background, without asking if you need help.
From my research, I found there is a gradient of perceptions of support. Some Indigenous students recognise they need it, and are grateful for it, but some don’t, and find the offer of help demeaning.
We have to be very careful in our assumptions of what works. While we do need support systems, we have to be very careful how we offer them. One approach does not fit all, and we cannot treat everyone as part of one big group. You need to find a balance.
I developed a model of Indigenous students’ perceptions of support and asked what they thought of the concept of support, and of their need to be supported. Some students recognised they needed help.
But Indigenous students come from a variety of backgrounds, and many don’t like to be approached in such a way.
We don’t approach any other group saying ‘you are more likely to fail than succeed’. Some students distance themselves completely from this and resist by succeeding. They form an identity of resistance by saying that ‘as an Indigenous person I can do well by myself, I don’t need your help’.
My research shows many students think they succeeded despite the support systems in place, not because of them.
The paradigm is shifting. We’re beginning to talk about success, and why people do well, and not treating it as a sensation when they do.
‘My research shows many students think they succeeded despite the support systems in place, not because of them.’
My thesis fits into this emerging paradigm, looking into why and how people succeed, not why they fail.
Before I began my thesis I was working in a university, as the International Week co-ordinator. Part of International Week was an installation of flags, of every nation represented on campus, on a huge map drawn on the lawn. We had about 50 countries represented, all the nations of the students and staff.
One morning a student walked up to me and asked why the Aboriginal flag was missing. It completely befuddled me. I felt like I had done something wrong, like I had committed a cultural mistake.
I told my manager and overnight he ordered an Aboriginal flag. It was installed next to the Australian flag the next morning.
So I started my thesis with this thought: “what is the place of Indigenous students on campus if their flag was forgotten from the beginning?” ’
Ekaterina Pechenkina’s thesis is titled: “Being Successful. Becoming Successful. An Ethnography of Indigenous Students at an Australian University.”
*My PhD is an irregular series in which The Citizen speaks with recent Melbourne University PhD graduates.