Creating a lifetime love of literature

28 August 2017

High school students who might never have thought about going to university are changing their minds thanks to a program, in partnership with the Nelson Meers Foundation, that demystifies tertiary study and brings the arts and humanities to life.

You know a program is something special when most of the academic staff in a department are enthusiastic volunteers.

That’s the case with the Widening Participation in English program. Academics from the University English Department visit disadvantaged schools in western Sydney and regional and rural NSW with two goals in mind – bringing literature and the humanities to life, and opening up students to the possibilities of tertiary study.

They often do this in places where students have little interest the humanities, and in communities where going to university isn’t the norm or even desirable. As is so often the case, stereotypical expectations are often challenged.

“The high school students consistently display an intellectual independence and a confidence for open-minded provocation,” says Dr Kieryn McKay (BA(HONS) ’03, PhD ’12), Social Inclusion Project Coordinator in the Department of English, “It’s certainly something we’d like to see more of in our classrooms.”

The project works to engage students with the arts through literature and drama, developing their critical and creative capacities in the process. Activities range from deconstructing a video game and performing Shakespeare, to writing and sharing stories and exploring ideas of truth in the work of photographer Frank Hurley.

Through experiences like this, students at Blacktown Boys High School, Bankstown Girls High School, and Coonabarabran and Gilgandra high schools have been getting their first surprising taste of what studying English at university looks like.

An important element of the program is building sustained partnerships with schools, but there are also plans to reach out to the communities around the schools. For example, in Dubbo and Broken Hill, the program wants to involve local film and creative writing organisations to help creative kids find their way to the University.

Giving students every opportunity

Talking about what happens at a university, can only go so far, which is why students are also invited to visit the campus. They attend lectures, explore the Nicholson Museum of antiquities and Fisher Library’s rare books collection and, to really test their mettle, they take on a spot of rock-climbing in the gym.

The project supports the University’s strategic aim of social inclusivity and many participating students are the first in their families to be exposed to the possibility university study. According to Melissa Hardie, who is Associate Dean of Undergraduate Programs in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and the project’s academic lead, even hesitant students are surprised by their campus visit. “I loved sitting in the lecture theatre discussing writing genres,” said a student from Bankstown Girls High. And another from Blacktown Boys, “I can see myself fitting in here no problem.”

Hardie remembers another student who developed an interest in archaeology from watching movies. “She came to campus, visited the Nicholson Museum, saw archaeological artefacts and found out we have a Department of Archaeology and archaeologists working here,” she says. “The project helps students to take ideas that aren’t fully formed, and translate them into ambitions for university work.”

The Widening Participation in English program’s ambition is simple – to give more students who might otherwise miss out, what they need to at least consider university study. Hardie adds, “We also think this project is a great way to help more kids develop a life-long love of literature.”

But none of this is possible without funding – as well as relying on the work of volunteers, the program is 100% donor funded, and can’t continue without that support.

The case for supporting the program has been made strongly by one of its current supporters, businessman and philanthropist Nelson Meers AO, who has said, “Where the arts and learning flourish so do tolerance and enlightenment.”

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