Staff Profile: Associate Professor Sarah O’Shea, School of Education

Improving educational equity and changing perceptions of disadvantaged cohorts

After starting professional life working with disengaged youth in Western Sydney, Associate Professor Sarah O’Shea from UOW’s School of Education has sustained her interest in working with students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Her mission: to change perceptions of these student cohorts and increase their educational opportunities.

In the early 90s, O’Shea worked for Government Employment Programs in Bankstown, supporting young people who had disengaged from the formal school system by helping them to acquire basic educational skills and re-engage with employment opportunities.

Several years later, she turned her attention to teaching adult migrants basic education at TAFE in North Sydney where she was helping them learn to read and write – a job she says was extremely rewarding.

“I got them to produce written work and one of the tasks was for them to write their life story. To see their excitement at being able to write this was both validating for me and the learners.”

After obtaining her PhD while working at the University of Newcastle (UON) in student retention and transition, Sarah developed a taste for research. She set her sights on a career in research at a regional university and in 2010 landed a role at UOW.

Associate Professor O’Shea’s interest in educational equity became her research focus area, working with students from equity groups including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students as well as those from low socio economic backgrounds and more recently, students who are first in the family to attend university.

Her research examines the obstacles equity students may encounter, and the ways these can be remediated. She says there were some unsurprising themes underpinning their challenges.

“In terms of applied research, I think what I talk about is no different to what a lot of people already know; things like finances, distances and rural and regional students having to shift themselves from where they live and move to a new community.

“The more theoretical research is really deeply examining what this means to people. It looks at the emotional responses, the embodied notion of what it is to attend university so how people have to change, how they have to manage new identities, how they have to relate to the people they leave behind – their families and peers, in order to come to university,” O’Shea explains.

After receiving a national teaching fellowship in 2016, Sarah engaged in research surrounding first in family students – many of whom hail from a low socio economic backgrounds and in many cases are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

“The reason I’m drawn to it is because my underpinning philosophy is that being the ‘first’ is in itself, something we can turn into a positive. At the moment, students tend to be defined in deficit terms. But I come from a strength-based perspective, where rather than looking at people as having ‘problems’, I focus on individuals in terms of their strengths.

As part of her research, O’Shea and colleagues have developed a website which offers a range of resources for students and their families and for practitioners in the field who are involved in teaching these students. She has also visited 20 Australian universities conducting workshops and training sessions to share her knowledge.

Thanks to a Churchill Fellowship, Associate Professor O’Shea has received funding to visit institutions in the UK, US and Canada in order to explore alternative approaches to engaging and retaining this student cohort. She plans to bring back best practices which can be applied to the Australian educational sector.

O’Shea says the idea of recognising first in family students is gaining traction at Australian universities, with approximately 51 per cent of students across the sector falling into this cohort.

“At UOW over 50 per cent of our students are first in family and it’s only quite recently that the institution has started to focus explicitly on this cohort.

“It’s an interesting time as I think there’s a bit of an appetite to know more about how to engage with this cohort, in a positive and celebratory way, rather than in an “oh dear you’ve got a problem” way, so I guess this is really what I’m trying to do,” O’Shea affirmed.

She has come full circle in supporting disengaged youth and is currently volunteering her time in setting up an alternative school for young people in Nowra who have left the formal education system.

“For the last eight years I’ve been a board member of the Community Colleges on the south coast. This is something we’ve been working towards for the last three years and we just got accreditation from the Government to operate as an independent school, which is exciting,” she says.
Offering an alternative learning environment, the school will open in February 2019 and is targeting students in Year 9, who are completely disengaged from schooling, have difficulty fitting into the education system and struggle with being in that environment.

The school is based on adult learning principles, which means it’s driven by the learner. It aims to enable students to get a Record of School Achievement (RoSA), which is the most basic high school qualification, offering a pathway to the HSC or equivalent and giving them an educational qualification.

Sarah says the work she does, both paid and unpaid is largely driven by simply feeling passionate about the subject area.

“I think the most important thing for people to think about is what they want their legacy to be. What sustains me in my work is that I’m genuinely passionate about it. Being an academic is a very privileged position – we have an opportunity to help bring about change.”