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Equity Buddies: A student social network supporting retention and achievement at UWS August 26, 2012

Posted by Editor21C in Social Justice and Equity through Education, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education.
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from Professor Margaret Vickers

When we ask how the University of Western Sydney can contribute to the Western Sydney community, we need to recognise that UWS itself needs to function as a community, creating new social connections and supporting all the students who come to us.

Equity Buddies (EB) is a for-credit cross-level student mentoring program developed with support from an Office of Learning and Teaching grant. Initially designed to provide support for UWS students with refugee backgrounds, it delivers clear benefits for the mentors as well as the mentees who participate in EB. These benefits include a stronger sense of ‘community’ on campus, improved writing and referencing skills, better time management, and (importantly) greater cross-cultural understanding. An alarming finding from our review of student reflections was that many students seemed, through Equity Buddies, to ‘discover’ for the first time that if you use relationships as a resource you can solve problems, do better work, and feel more confident. One student said,

This gave me a completely different idea about what the University experience can be. It’s not just about results.

This was not an isolated comment. Many students were surprised that ‘community building’ and ‘networking’ could be so powerful.

In the first iteration of EB, 50 second and third year students committed to one-to-one mentoring of 1st year students who met with them each week, engaging in mutually-negotiated activities that were sometimes social and sometimes academic. The broader significance of this project is that it demonstrates that students, many of whom are new arrivals or even students from refugee backgrounds, can provide very effective supports for first year students. Mentors found that in the process of doing this work their own academic skills improve. All students who participated in EB interacted with and learned from people whose cultural backgrounds were different to their own.

This was not merely a process that broadened the perspectives of Anglo-Australians; students from immigrant families reported similar learning, and a growth in respect for others. For example, a Christian Iraqi decided – after making friends with a Lebanese Muslim – that Islam was not always a ‘punitive and narrow’ religion. A Somali immigrant sympathised with and supported a newly arrived Vietnamese international student who is still struggling with English. Numerous examples could be cited.

Students come to UWS from very diverse ethnic backgrounds and often they remain sequestered within these ethnic groups after enrolling. By structuring opportunities for our students to know and support each other academically and socially across these divides, we could well make significant contributions to improved cross-cultural understanding in the Greater Western Sydney region.  

Margaret Vickers is a Professor in the Centre for Educational Research in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. Equity Buddies was established in 2012 through a grant awarded to Margaret Vickers and Dr Katina Zammit. The project manager is Jan Morrison.

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