NT students in Yirrkala are preparing for university after being the first to graduate from ATAR in a remote community


Kenisha Winunguj is far from home in the remote community of Yirrkala in eastern Arnhem Land, but she looks forward to starting her first year at Darwin University next year.

“I’m excited and a little nervous,” said Ms. Winunguj.

In 2020, she was one of eight students in Yirrkala to become the first in the community to complete 12th grade with a college entrance score.

Since then, Ms. Winunguj and five of these students have participated in a pilot program at Charles Darwin University (CDU) aimed at making their transition to university easier by enabling them to study both on site and on campus in Darwin.

Program director and CDU research director Nicola Rolls said while the start of studies could be a stressful time for any new high school graduate, this group of students face additional hurdles.

Rarrtjiwuy Melanie Herdman (left), with Kenisha Winunguj and Nicola Rolls.(ABC News: Housnia Shams)

“[The students] come from a particular cultural and linguistic context where English is their additional language … this adds another layer to the challenges of reading and writing academic English, “said Dr. Rolls.

“Being away from a place where they live close to family and culture is a big change for them.”

The program was run in collaboration with the Yirrkala-based group of the Djalkiri Foundation and participants were supported by Yolngu mentors.

Djalkiri Foundation CEO Rarrtjiwuy Melanie Herdman said the students studied a range of subjects, including academic language and essay writing.

“[Students could] support each other by writing reviews, research, references at Harvard – things we are not exposed to in remote communities, “she said.

Students who have participated in the program seek degrees in a number of fields, including law and education.

a young aboriginal woman working on a computer
Ms. Winunguj says she enjoyed studying on the Darwin campus.(ABC News: Housnia Shams)

After participating in the program, Ms. Winunguj said she planned to become a midwife.

“I would love to go home and work with young mothers [and] help them with their babies, “said Ms. Winunguj.

In 2019, the Naphthine Review of Higher Education found that people in regional and remote parts of Australia were less than half as likely to graduate from college as their urban counterparts.

The review found that when examining participation rates for indigenous students, the gap was even wider.

“The CDU’s current access and participation rates of around 9.9 percent and 8 percent, respectively, are above the national industry average,” said Dr. Rolls.

“However, with the indigenous population totaling 30 percent of the NT population, strategies and programs to increase the enrollment and success of Indigenous NT students in higher education are important.”

It is hoped that the pilot will provide a model for future transition programs to increase the enrollment of indigenous students.

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