Why resilience of Indigenous students really resonates

22 September 2020

The fabric of Sandra Rennie’s life is woven from many strands but all of them support her focus on the ‘willful resistance, resilience and persistence’ of Indigenous Australian students.

The former teacher and education pathways advisor has also worn many hats at The University of Queensland.

Dr Sandra Rennie

She’s been a doctoral student and research assistant on Indigenous projects, an academic for integral courses on ‘Indigenous Knowledges & Education’, ‘Indigenous Australian Issues’, and ‘Gender Research: Approaches and Methodologies’, and a coordinator for the ‘Indigenous Women and Men: Gendered Business’ course.

Her family journey includes bringing up four sons, including two Aboriginal boys who are now both successful in broadcast media careers.

Dr Rennie originally started her PhD at UQ by focusing on critical transition points where strategies could be put in place to improve retention and graduation rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander university students.

However, her deep dive into the journeys of seven male and seven female university students revealed that, far from being about deficits and gaps, the truth was more about their absolute determination to succeed.

Meanwhile, inspiration from two leading theorists also sparked fresh approaches and a Dean’s Award for Outstanding Thesis (when she completed her PhD in 2018).

“With the cohort I was interviewing, no-one was talking about failing, no-one was talking about leaving; they were all talking about succeeding regardless.

“Whatever the stumbling blocks were, such as financial issues or missing home, they were talking about succeeding, so I changed focus to what’s driving these students on to succeed and what’s keeping them going … and that was an exciting place.”

Dr Rennie said one of the two main theorists underpinning her study was Torres Strait Islander academic Professor Martin Nakata, “who drew attention to how Indigenous students are living their daily lives at the cultural interface”.

“Every day they are living and working in two and at times very different opposing worlds; that of  the western knowledge system and their own Indigenous knowledges and ways of being,” Dr Rennie says.

“I was also inspired by Sara Ahmed, who has a British mother and father from Pakistan, and identifies as a black woman, and her recollection as a child in Western Australia experiencing racism through being mistaken as a young Aboriginal woman.

“Sara became a diversity worker in universities in the UK and I loved the way she took on the whole idea of willfulness and speaking back to the higher education institution, while being inspired by her gendered stories of the willful black feminist.

“I wanted to put on a gendered lens to examine the stories the students were telling me to see how Ahmed’s theories of being a feminist killjoy and ‘speaking up and speaking back’ to racism and marginalisation added a depth of understanding to the issues that I wanted to explore with the students in my study”.

“I also realised that these theories gave me a key to open the door and talk to the students, as a non-Indigenous researcher, about those difficult topics.”