Transformational journeys to Menindee

Wednesday 5 Feb 2014
Journeying to MenindeeAn annual four-day camp for Charles Sturt University (CSU) staff at Menindee in western NSW aims to produce an institution-wide transition from Indigenous cultural awareness to cultural competence.
Dr Barbara Hill, Indigenous Curriculum and Pedagogy Coordinator in the CSU Division of Student Learning, said, "The experience of participants at Menindee affirms that social justice and reconciliation are at the heart of efforts by the University to produce an institution-wide transition that will foster and ensure increasing Indigenous student recruitment, retention and completion of its courses."
Starting in 2010, there have been five group journeys to Menindee - Ngiyeempa country - with a total of 45 CSU participants. These included CSU Vice-Chancellor, Professor Andrew Vann, early in his tenure in 2012, and before him, former Vice-Chancellor, Emeritus Professor Ian Goulter, in 2011. There were 25 participants in 2013.
Strategic context
The learning experience is an expression of the University's commitment to achieve objectives which are reiterated in the University Strategy 2013-2015. Specifically, CSU aims to 'improve educational outcomes and lives for Indigenous, regional, rural and remote Australians'.
In Indigenous education, CSU has adopted three strategic priorities. These are to (1) 'implement cultural competency training for all staff'; (2) 'ensure all undergraduate programs incorporate Indigenous Australian content consistent with the Indigenous cultural competence pedagogical framework'; and, (3) 'maintain national leadership in this area'.
The University's efforts will be judged by its 'improvements in the proportion of Indigenous students'. A new analysis of ABS Census data by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) revealed there was a notable increase in the number of Indigenous students in Australian tertiary institutions between 2006 and 2011 (from 7 057 students to 10 128 students), with enrolments growing by about 43 per cent. The authors noted, however, that Indigenous students are still considerably underrepresented in Australian higher education. While Indigenous people made up 2.5 per cent of the Australian population in 2011, only 1.09 per cent of university students were Indigenous.
Against this data, in 2012 CSU had 685 Indigenous students, or 1.8 per cent of all CSU enrolments, which was a 15.5 per cent increase on 2011 enrolments (n = 593).
Ripples and seeing
Ripples and SeeingAccording to Dr Hill, the process of cultural transformation the University and its staff have embarked on is best illustrated by analogies used in the media, and to participants, to promote understanding.
"In the recent ABC TV screening of First Footprints, the director Bentley Dean explains an experience he had one evening around the campfire with Wiradjuri archaeologist, Wayne Brennan," Dr Hill said. "Mr Brennan explained the meaning of an ancient Wiradjuri idea – birrung burrung – literally the moment when ripples in a pond cease, allowing one to see deep into it.
"In 2010, Wiradjuri Elder, Aunty Gloria (Dindima) Rogers, spoke similar words to the first CSU group to travel to Menindee; 'A stone thrown into a pond sends out many ripples. That is what we are doing here,' she said.
Dr Barb Hill"The CSU journey west to Menindee cultural immersion experience in 2013 again created these ripples. With Aunty Beryl (Yungha dhu) Philp Carmichael, and her expert teaching, the group had a very powerful individual and collective sense of 'seeing deeply into things'.
"I feel this experience really resonates with the Wiradjuri phrase prefaced in the CSU University Strategy (2013-2015) yindyamarra winhanga-nha – 'the wisdom of respectfully knowing how to live in a world worth living in'."
A journey, not an event
Dr Hill and former CSU colleague Dr Jane Mills have written elsewhere* that cultural competence is an ongoing journey, not an event. This process is testified to by participants who have reported their perceptions of the journey to Menindee in post-camp reports**.
The University's aim is not to force Indigenous community engagement and collaboration on staff but to build it into performance management descriptors so that those who do engage are encouraged and rewarded. Two examples illustrate this process.
Professor Robert Davidson, Associate Head of the CSU School of Dentistry and Health Sciences and Professor of Medical Imaging, wrote of his Menindee experience, 'One of the reasons I was invited to attend the weekend (in October 2013) was that the Bachelor of Medical Radiation Science is undergoing a revision to integrate Indigenous Australian content into the course, rather than having it as a stand-alone subject. It was felt that this would help students to understand that cultural competence was integral to their future practice, rather than an optional addition.'
Telescope at MenindeeCharles Sturt University is working with Menindee Central School, Aunty Beryl Philp Carmichael and her daughter Julie Philp with 'Joining the Dreaming' to bring deep space to the investigative classroom. At the October 2012 cultural immersion experience in Menindee, CSU staff delivered two telescopes to the school and Aunty Beryl, as part of an 'Indigenous Sky Stories in the Middle School' project led by Associate Professor David McKinnon from the CSU School of Teacher Education. This CSU-funded project uses astronomy as the context for engaging Australian Indigenous middle-school students (Years 5-8) in science, mathematics and technology, as well as aspects of engineering. Astronomy is a component of the National Science Curriculum and an Australian flagship Super Science area. Students will learn about the contents of the universe and how objects within our Solar System move, knowledge which is integral content for the National Science Curriculum 'Earth and Space' strand. In addition, Indigenous students and their non-Indigenous counterparts will share their cosmogonies with Sioux, Arapaho and Crow Nation students in North and South Dakota, and Wyoming, in the USA. The interaction within and between nations will allow marginalised groups and their communities to share, compare and contrast their 'sky stories'.
A final word
VC Professor Andrew VannWriting of his Menindee experience**, CSU Vice-Chancellor Professor Andrew Vann gratefully acknowledged Aunty Beryl and her family's hospitality, and looked forward to returning. He noted the Ngiyeempa tradition of story telling to transmit law and expectations, and reflected on what universities can draw from that at a time of significant change.

'It seems to me that in the contemporary university we have a critical need to nurture a sense of shared culture owned by all parties and to retain a sense of agency in the face of what is admittedly a very competitive environment,' he wrote. 'I think there might be things to learn from Indigenous cultures.'


Media contact: Bruce Andrews, (02) 6338 6084

Media Note:
Read more about the Menindee cultural immersion experience in: * Barbara Hill and Jane Mills (2012), ‘Situating the ‘beyond’: adventure-learning and Indigenous cultural competence’, in Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, DOI:10.1080/01596306.2012.698864 ** Journeys West to Menindee – Collation of Reports from 2010-2012, by Dr Barbara Hill, et al, Charles Sturt University, May 2012.