Part of the commitment by Charles Darwin University (CDU) to building an effective rural and remote health workforce in and for the Northern Territory (NT), is encouraging more First Nations people into health-related courses and doing so with an approach that incorporates both First Nations and Western knowledge systems.
Despite substantial improvements in recent years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people remain significantly under-represented in the health workforce. It is also well established that increasing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workforce is fundamental to improving health and wellbeing outcomes for the broader population.
One approach to growing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workforce, currently receiving significant attention, is pathways or preparation programs between secondary school, vocational education and training, and higher education. Research indicates that these programs provide an environment in which students can develop a sense of belonging in higher education and grow resilience to help them persist in their studies.
CDU, located in the far-north of Australia, has delivered a pre-law program for many years and, more recently, run similar programs for business and accounting. This year, in addition to pre-arts and education, CDU’s Faculty of Health launched its inaugural First Nations Introduction to University program – part of a broader goal by CDU to increase the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health professionals in the NT.
The month-long, full-time program was delivered in January 2023 and attracted students from Greater Darwin. Consistent with CDU’s commitment to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander inclusion, and processes that seek to prioritise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices and knowledge, the program was co-designed using a ‘dual academy’ approach, incorporating both First Nations and Western knowledge systems.
The ‘dual academy’ was developed by Dr Tracy Woodroffe, Warumungu Luritja woman and scholar who specialises in educational research at CDU, through a series of workshops attended by First Nations women from diverse areas of science, including midwifery, educational design, linguistics and drone piloting. It has been proposed as an alternative approach to improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student outcomes by engaging them in ways that are responsive to the distinct epistemic methods derived through First Nations peoples’ cultural heritage. The co-design of the First Nations Introduction to University program involved First Nations and non-First Nations educators and professionals in the discipline areas, including Dr Debra Dank, a Gudanji/Wakaja woman who has worked in teaching and learning for over 40 years.
The program sought to provide students with knowledge and experiences that would support successful participation in tertiary studies – providing some foundational skills, knowledge, experience of academic culture, an understanding of different career opportunities in health and the opportunity to create a sense of ‘belonging at university’. Exploring First Nations knowledges as they relate to health, the program drew on students’ experiences, languages and epistemologies to develop their skills and abilities and enhance their academic transition and literacies.
Utilising an experiential learning approach, considerable class time was spent collaborating and working on assignments. First Nations health student mentors helped develop a sense of connection and belonging to the university through cultural and social activities and ‘being there’ as advisers and mentors. The students were also provided access to private after-hours tutoring through the Indigenous Tutorial Assistance Scheme.
The CDU First Nations Student Support team also worked with the students to identify their academic needs, their interests and explore their tertiary study options. Many chose to pursue a health-related degree at CDU – an important outcome for all of us because, as Dr Dank said, ‘The more First Nations people we have actively engaged in the dissemination of education, arts and health, the better a place we’re all in.’
If you have any questions or are interested in participating in CDU’s First Nations Introduction to Health program, please contact Dr Emily Gilbert at [email protected].
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