In defiance of the odds stacked against them, substantial numbers of students with refugee backgrounds (SRBs) are entering Australian universities. An estimate for the University of Western Sydney suggests that 1500 students - 3 percent of the undergraduate candidature - may be SRBs. Hitherto most studies of SRBs have focused on student needs at the primary and secondary level. Much of this literature casts SRBs as victims, emphasising past trauma and psychological disturbance, and focusing on the disjunction their prior schooling and the requirements of the Australian education system.
This paper takes a different approach. Its focus is on University students and it shows them to be active agents for pedagogical change. At this stage, little research has been done on the needs of SRBs at the University level. As a result of the Bradley Review's targets for expansion and equity, most Universities are now monitoring the needs of student subgroups considered to be 'at risk' of attrition or poor academic progress. However, SRBs are still being overlooked for targeted support because most Australian universities have not yet recognized them as a distinct equity subgroup. This paper reports initial outcomes of a project funded by the DEEWR Office of Learning and Teaching, in which a small but widely representative group of SRBs were employed by UWS as Facilitators to assist in the development of a support network for first-year SRBs and other new arrivals from language backgrounds other than English.
In 2012, a new study unit was launched at UWS through which second- and third-year students delivered coaching on a for-credit basis to first-year students. Academic and student-support staff provided tuition in a range of areas including mentoring skills, literacy and writing, referencing, and library use. Ethical consent was gained to interview Facilitators and use student reflections after grades were awarded. Throughout these interviews Facilitators referred to themselves as active agents for pedagogical change, supporting the student-coaches and helping them understand what would be useful, and why it was important. More specifically, they saw themselves as people whose very presence at UWS challenged the unselfconscious racism often expressed by other students, and even by staff. Recounting an incident in which a fellow student told a Facilitator (Zainab: pseudonym) that she was really surprised she spoke English because she was African, Zainab said, 'So it's really good for them that we're here, because they learn to get over their stereotypes!'