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'It is the best thing you can do at uni': How volunteering as an AIME mentor enhances university students' learning and positively impacts their community

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‘It$is$the$best$thing$you$can$do$at$uni’:$How$volunteering$as$an$AIME$mentor$enhances$university$
students’$learning$and$positively$impacts$their$community:$Good$Practice$Report!
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‘It is the best thing you can do at uni’: How volunteering as an AIME
mentor enhances university students’ learning and positively impacts their
community.
Professor Valerie Harwood, Professor Paul Chandler, A/Professor Sarah O’Shea, Dr Sam
McMahon, all from School of Education and Early Start Research Institute, University of
Wollongong and Ms Amy Priestly, AIME
Background
Mentoring of Indigenous school students by university students is an expanding initiative that
seeks to address the education ‘gap experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
peoples. This Good Practice Report describes the benefits of universities providing
opportunities for their students to mentor Indigenous young people. We outline the research
problem then draw on findings from our three-year, mixed methods research project with
AIME (the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience) and university student mentors
mentors from 16 Australian universities. The implications of these findings for wider
university mentoring practice, especially as they relate to the conference themes of ‘students’,
‘achievement’ and ‘success’ will then be discussed.
It is widely agreed that it is difficult for Indigenous students to get to university and it is
extremely difficult for those who do enter to complete their degrees (Bradley, Noonan,
Nugent & Scales, 2008; Universities Australia, 2008). Indigenous students have lower
completion rates in secondary school education (MCEECDYA, 2010) and have been reported
as not being aware of university participation strategies (Hossain, Gorman, Williams-Mozley,
& Garvey, 2008). Participation rates at university are low, reported as being 1.3% with
extremely low rates of Indigenous PhD graduates (0.5%) (Evans & Carr, 2011). Indigenous
university attrition rates are alarming, with university departure statistics powerfully
highlighting the significance of this problem. This is evidenced by the most recent statistics
regarding university student retention rates: in 2013, 70.79 per cent of Indigenous university
students completed their enrolled university studies (and for those mid-progression,
continued their studies in 2014), compared with 80.83 per cent of all students (Australian
Government Department of Education and Training 2015a,b).
Patterns of educational disadvantage within the tertiary sector are now gradually beginning to
shift; the Commonwealth of Australia Department of Industry (2014) is now reporting an
increase in Indigenous student numbers across most broad fields of university education,
although students who self identified as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander still only
comprise one per cent of all enrolments in 2012. Despite these reported improvements, there
remains a significant underrepresentation particularly when we consider that Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander people make up three per cent of the total Australian population
(Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS], 2013). It should also be noted that more recent, and
successive Australian governments have emphasized the need for redressing the long-term
inequities in education between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. Yet scholarly
criticism suggests that these macro policy agendas have been too strongly embedded within
discourses of disadvantage and deficit (Altman, Biddle, & Hunter, 2009; Irabinna-Rigney,
2011).
‘It$is$the$best$thing$you$can$do$at$uni’:$How$volunteering$as$an$AIME$mentor$enhances$university$
students’$learning$and$positively$impacts$their$community:$Good$Practice$Report!
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University mentoring programs have become a popular technique for building Indigenous
young people’s knowledge and aspirations for higher education. Yet even with significant
financial and institutional investment, we still know very little about university student
mentoring with Indigenous school students. These mentoring initiatives are often part of
wider efforts aimed at improving university access. As such, the majority of these programs
are featured in ‘pathway’ programs designed by and for specific universities. Such programs
target students from low SES backgrounds, followed by those specifically for Indigenous
students and those from rural and remote locations (Gale, et al., 2010). There is a scarcity of
evaluative literature on the mentoring elements of these programs. Thematically, Gale et al.
(2010) identify that most of these mentoring programs are designed to familiarise students
with the higher education environment and/or raise individuals’ aspirations in relation to
university study. Many of the programs employ the use of mentors to provide both a role
model and induction into the university environment. However, while the AIME program
utilises mentors it is quite different to such university pathway programs.
AIME is the only mentoring program in Australia working with university students across
numerous university sites (Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, Queensland,
Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia) that targets Indigenous students at both
primary and secondary school levels. This program, created by Indigenous university
students in 2005, has expanded to a national program in 29 sites across Australia that
includes 16 of Australia’s 39 universities, with 1,526 university student mentors and 4,484
school student mentees (from 313 high schools). In 2014 across Australia, volunteer
university mentors provided 28,400 hours of free support to AIME mentees. Given this
national take-up, this project focussed on building understanding of this new stream of
educational intervention and investigates how mentoring by university students can be
delivered in more accessible forms supported by interactive communication technology.
The AIME organisation sits outside the school and higher education systems, funded
independently as a charity, enabling AIME to work across institutions. The program is
positively impacting on both school completion rates and also university admissions. The
impact of the AIME Program has been measured year on year within the organisation with
grade progressions and Year 12 completions statistics published in their Annual Reports.
AIME have reported four consecutive years of school progression and completion results that
are significantly higher than national Indigenous statistics. Table 1 indicates the rate of
progression across school years, the percentages of students who complete the final year of
high school (Year 12).
National Outcomes
Non-Indigenous
students
Indigenous
students
AIME 2014
students
Year 10-11
progressions
94.7%
82.9%
94.8%
Year 11-12
progressions
88.1%
73.1%
87.6%
Year 12 completions
86.5%
58.5%
93.2%
Table 1: Mentee progression and transition data from 2014, compared to their non-
Indigenous and Indigenous counterparts.
Source: AIME 2014 Annual Report (AIME 2015)
The statistics indicate that Indigenous students affiliated with AIME outperform their non-
AIME Indigenous counterparts in terms of school transitions and completions. Moreover, in
‘It$is$the$best$thing$you$can$do$at$uni’:$How$volunteering$as$an$AIME$mentor$enhances$university$
students’$learning$and$positively$impacts$their$community:$Good$Practice$Report!
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2014, the progression rates for Years 10-11 and completion rate for Year 12 were higher than
those for non-Indigenous Australians (AIME 2015). AIME is also positively impacting
Indigenous students’ participation in university. In 2014, 30.9% of AIME’s Year 12 students
transitioned to a university post school pathway (i.e. bachelor degrees or university college)
and commenced their studies in 2015. AIME is effectively closing the educational gap for its
students.
How are university students involved in this successful mentoring program? The AIME
mentors are recruited from the various university sites that the program currently operates,
this is a significant number for example in 2014 the program recruited 1,526 mentors.
Reflecting the university student demographic, AIME mentors are mainly non-Indigenous
and there are more female than male mentors. The mentors are students from all university
faculties and programs and are predominantly studying at an undergraduate level. AIME staff
recruit university student mentors via O-week stalls, lecture presentations, college visits,
social media, and also by word of mouth. Interested students apply online, providing details
of why they wish to participate and presenting a case for what makes them a good AIME
mentor candidate and why they should be selected. All applications are assessed by the
AIME organisation and short follow-up phone interviews are conducted. Successful
applicants must complete online training sessions on Australian Indigenous history and child
protection policy and attend on-campus induction programs. The induction covers topics such
as cultural identity, mentoring techniques and provides information regarding the program
and the mentors role and responsibilities. However, training and learning about the program
and mentoring is an ongoing endeavour throughout participation; AIME mentors engage
briefing sessions at the beginning and end of each mentoring session. During these briefs
mentors are encouraged to discuss their mentoring experiences, any anxieties or concerns as
well as provide feedback on what they consider is working or not in the program.
AIME’s organisational culture can be likened to what Cameron and Quinn (2011) term as a
“clan culture”. Through a range of social media strategies and also, the AIME hoodies and
caps that are the mentors’ ‘uniform’; the organisation seeks to develop a collectivity based on
shared goals, values and beliefs. This collectivity is recognisable within AIME, which we
have observed as operating “like an extended family. Leaders are thought of as mentors and
perhaps even as parent figures…. Commitment is high. The organization emphasizes the
long-term benefit of individual development, with high cohesion and morale being
important.” (Cameron & Quinn, 2011, p.48). In this context, becoming an AIME mentor is
not simply about attending sessions with mentees but identifying with AIME, as a collective.
Our work with AIME spans the last five years and collectively provides insight into how
university students successfully engaged with their Indigenous school student mentees
(O’Shea, Harwood, Kervin & Humphry, 2013) and also how involvement with this program
impacts on both the mentors and mentees in a deeply embodied ways (O’Shea, McMahon,
Bodkin-Andrews, Priestly, & Harwood, 2015). This Good Practice Report will focus on our
understandings of how mentoring Indigenous high school students impacts upon university
mentors and consider how this understanding might be applied to universities’ capacity to
strategically impact broader social inclusion and promote student engagement and graduate
employability.
‘It$is$the$best$thing$you$can$do$at$uni’:$How$volunteering$as$an$AIME$mentor$enhances$university$
students’$learning$and$positively$impacts$their$community:$Good$Practice$Report!
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Project description
This is a large-scale mixed methods project that employs, survey, interview and ethnographic
methods. Funding was secured from the Australian Research Council (DP140103690) and
builds upon previous research into university undergraduate students’ mentoring of
Indigenous school students (funded by University Research Council, UOW 2011-13; Federal
Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary
Education, 2013 2015; Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations
(DEEWR) 2012-2013). The wider AIME/UOW/UTS research partnership also evaluates the
impact of the program on the mentees and draws upon CI Harwood’s research into
imagination and perceptions of university participation by low socio-economic status (LSES)
young people (DP110104704).
Project rationale and focus
There is a growing body of literature that demonstrates how university students’ mentoring
via the AIME program can positively impact Indigenous young people (Bodkin-Andrews,
Harwood, McMahon & Priestly, 2013; Harwood et al. 2013, Harwood, McMahon, O’Shea,
Bodkin-Andrews & Priestly, 2015). 2015). However, there remains a dearth of understanding
regarding the university students’ role in the mentoring process. This Good Practice report
aims to explore what the university students’ learn from mentoring. We describe impacts on
mentors’ cultural awareness, how this has impacted their student experience and their
communities. Particularly, we also summarise their self-reported learning of university
graduate outcomes and skills from their experiences as an AIME mentor.
While there are few studies that robustly explain why and how university student mentoring
programs can work with Indigenous school students, there is a proliferation of research on
mentoring programs, generally. However, much of this research tends to focus on individual
programs and so is contextually bounded (Chuang, Thompson & Schmidt, 2003; Jacobi,
1991; Macullum, Beltman & Palmer, 2005). The introduction of mentor programs continues
to increase in the higher education sector (Chuang et al, 2003) but relatively little empirical
research explores this phenomenon in terms of mentor’s motivations and/or the personal
benefits derived from involvement (Beltman & Schaeben, 2012; Jacobi, 1991; Johnson, Rose,
& Schlosser, 2007). Within the higher education sector, a body of research explores
mentoring relationships between Faculty members and students (Chuang et al, 2003;
Komarraju, Musulkin & Bhattacharya, 2010; Lechuga, 2011) and also those between existing
and commencing students (Beltman & Schaeben, 2012; O’ Shea, 2012; Stanley & Lapsley,
2008). However, there little material on cross-sectorial mentoring amongst peers such as
young undergraduate university students and high school students so this Good Practice
Report will specifically focus on how the AIME mentors articulated their personal outcomes
from participating in this program.
Project design
The study is nationally focussed and includes a mix of qualitative in-depth interviews with
mentors, pre and post mentor surveys, fieldwork observations of AIME programs in all states
as well interviews as with mentees involved in the program. The following table indicates the
range and depth of data that the project has gathered:
‘It$is$the$best$thing$you$can$do$at$uni’:$How$volunteering$as$an$AIME$mentor$enhances$university$
students’$learning$and$positively$impacts$their$community:$Good$Practice$Report!
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Year
Data Type
2015
Fieldwork
observations
2015
Mentor interviews
2014
Mentor
Interviews
2014
Mentor group
discussions
2014
Mentor surveys
2014
Fieldwork
observations
2014
Mentee
interviews in
individual and
small friendship
group sessions
2014
Mentee surveys
2013
Mentor post-
program survey
2013-15
Ongoing literature review conducted on approaches to mentoring
Table 2 Details of data collection
* Three of these interviews were with graduates of the AIME program who now attend
university and have become AIME mentors.
This Good Practice Report will focus specifically on the mentor survey data supporting our
most recent publication (O’Shea, McMahon, Bodkin-Andrews, Priestly & Harwood. 2016)
and yet to be published analysis of the 2014 and 2015 mentor interviews.
Surveys:
The survey data reported in our most recent publication (O’Shea et al. 2016) pertains to
university student learning from AIME. This publication primarily informs the outcomes and
implications sections of this report. This data survey reported represents 129 surveys;
respondents included 118 non-Indigenous and 11 Indigenous university mentors, from 13
different university sites across Australia.
The survey included a total of 31 question items that explored various facets of the program
and the mentors’ perceptions of participating. The analysis of survey data presented here
focuses on five key questions from the survey, which aimed to explore the mentor’s self-
reported learning from their AIME experience, these questions are outlined in Table 3.
‘It$is$the$best$thing$you$can$do$at$uni’:$How$volunteering$as$an$AIME$mentor$enhances$university$
students’$learning$and$positively$impacts$their$community:$Good$Practice$Report!
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Question 16
What did you learn from AIME?
Question 22
How has participation in AIME influenced how you connect and serve the
wider community?
Question 23
What have the Mentees taught you?
Question 24*
Has participation in AIME increased any of the following skills and
attributes? Please choose as many as you want.
Confidence
Ethical responsibility
Creativity
Cultural and social awareness
Integrity
Respect of Indigenous knowledge,
cultures and values
Initiative
Knowledge of a field outside of your
discipline
Communication skills
Desire to implement constructive change
in your community
Critical thinking skills
Leadership skills
Problem solving skills
Teamwork skills
Question 29
What is your message to other uni students who want to get involved in
AIME?
Table 3 Focus questions from the post-program AIME mentor survey
*The skills and attributes listed in question 24 were compiled in a two-step process. First, we
compiled a list of graduate attributes/qualities/skills from all Australian University websites.
This list then underwent a frequency count and was themed for overlapping concepts.
Overlapping themes were then collapsed further into the list presented here.
Data from the surveys was imported into NVivo10 and the qualitative comments were
inductively themed. Axial coding was then conducted to provide insight into how responses
related to the mentors’ demographic information and mentoring experience. In addition,
frequency counts in were conducted on the closed items to generate descriptive statistics.
Interviews
The 74 interviews (comprising 33 interviews from 2014 and 41 interviews from 2105 mentor
interviews) were in-depth and particularly encouraged the mentors to reflect upon their
reasons for becoming involved in the program and how they perceived the benefits of this
involvement. Specifically, mentors were asked questions relating to two broad themes
namely 1) their perceptions of the AIME mentoring model and 2) the ways in which AIME
participation impacted upon their own university experience. Examples of questions include
the following:
Can you describe a typical mentoring session for example, how do you prepare, how
do you start the mentoring session, how do you engage your mentee etc
Why do you think the AIME mentoring model engages with young mentees?
What types of impacts has being an AIME mentor had on you?
How has AIME mentoring impacted upon your overall university experience?
All the mentor interviews were transcribed in full and, similarly to the surveys, the qualitative
data was imported into NVivo (10). Attributes were assigned to each transcript to enable data
searches by; whether or not the mentors identified as Indigenous, gender, age, state, regional
‘It$is$the$best$thing$you$can$do$at$uni’:$How$volunteering$as$an$AIME$mentor$enhances$university$
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and metropolitan geography, field of university study and years of experience as an AIME
mentor. Transcripts were initially coded by responses to each question and according to the
themes of the existing wider interview and qualitative survey dataset. The thematic codes are
regularly interrogated by project team members as the project develops, allowing for new
codes to emerge inductively from the data and also, for some codes to be collapsed and
reframed. The findings presented from analysis of interview data in this report relate
primarily to preliminary analysis of mentors’ responses to the question: How has AIME
mentoring impacted on your overall university experience?
Project deliverables and outcomes
Students – Strategies for broader social inclusion
Findings reported in our latest publication (O’Shea et al., 2016) reveal that much university
student mentor learning is occurring through mentoring Indigenous young people in the
AIME program, with analysis indicating that mentor learning occurs in three key ways:
First, their learning is described to be of great scale. Here the case is made that the
mentors are often learning “more” than the mentees.
Secondly, the content of the mentors’ learning is important. Much of the mentors’
learning centered on developing knowledge and appreciation of Indigenous Australian
culture, a growing awareness of social injustices experienced by Indigenous
Australians and a move away from prior knowledge characterised by racist
stereotypes. In this sense, graduate qualities regarding a sense of social justice and
inclusiveness are being met.
Thirdly, what is both surprising and exceptional, are the mentors’ reports of how this
new knowledge is being applied to benefit the wider community, via both the changed
nature and capacity of their volunteer work and their proactive attempts to remedy
racism in their professional and personal lives.
Achievement – Strategies for promoting employability
Australian universities strive to ensure their graduates are employable, especially in terms of
mapping their university learning against personal qualities and competencies valued by
employers and society (Barrie, 2004). The survey respondents were asked if participation in
AIME had increased any of their skills and attributes (according to a synthesised list of
university graduate qualities). To varying degrees, the university students reported that their
experiences mentoring Indigenous young people at AIME positively impacted all listed
graduate qualities and outcomes (see Table 4).
Skills, knowledge and attributes
Number of positive
responses (%)
N = 129
Cultural and social awareness
112 (86.8)
Respect of Indigenous knowledge, cultures and values
104 (80.6)
Desire to implement constructive change in your community
87 (67.4)
Communication skills
84 (65.1)
Confidence
82 (63.6)
Leadership skills
79 (61.2)
Teamwork skills
79 (61.2)
Ethical responsibility
66 (51.2)
‘It$is$the$best$thing$you$can$do$at$uni’:$How$volunteering$as$an$AIME$mentor$enhances$university$
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Initiative
59 (45.7)
Problem solving skills
47 (36.4)
Integrity
44 (34.1)
Creativity
38 (29.5)
Critical thinking skills
38 (29.5)
Table 4 Graduate qualities enhanced through experiences at AIME: responses to
question 24 of the survey *Table sourced from O’Shea et al. (2016)
Mentors also reported that their learning from AIME impacted upon their professional
practices and aspirations (O’Shea et al. 2016). For example, leading the implementation of a
workforce diversity or Indigenous employment / training program at their places or work, or
aspiring to working with Indigenous people in their post-university careers (e.g., choosing to
teaching at schools with high Indigenous populations).
Success – student engagement
Preliminary analysis of the 2014/2015 mentor interview data triangulates mentor claims to
improved graduate qualities, especially in terms of improved cultural and social awareness,
and respect of Indigenous knowledge, cultures and values, as well as improved confidence
and communication skills. Overall, apart from the expected talk about the positive feelings
associated with self-identified altruism, there was comment on how AIME relates to the
mentors university experience centres. This comment centred on themes about:
Applying learning from their degree coursework (e.g., Indigenous studies, teaching,
nursing, marketing and science degrees)
Learning new things about Indigenous people, culture and history and how this differs
from their own experiences.
Developing friendship networks and achieving a sense of belonging to both the AIME
and university communities (especially meeting people from other faculties and
degree levels).
Value-adding to their resume. Mentors believed that volunteering during university
gave a competitive edge in the employment process post university.
Balancing stressful and demanding university coursework with fun experienced when
mentoring
Increasing motivation to engage with and remain in university coursework studies.
For some mentors, hearing Indigenous peoples stories of educational disadvantage
helped them realize the value of their opportunity for university education, which they
found motivating. For others, motivation was expressed as a byproduct of achieving a
better ‘balance’ of university life through the fun and friendships experienced at the
AIME program.
Wider application of deliverables or outcomes
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Mentoring with AIME has positively impacted university students’ learning, ability to impact
social inclusion, engagement in university and success in developing graduate skills and
attributes. Given this we recommend that provision of opportunities for university students
to mentor Indigenous young people and learn about Indigenous people, cultures and history is
good practice for universities. However, we would add the strong caveat that these mentoring
and learning opportunities should be designed and led by Indigenous people, as this is key to
the positive impacts of the AIME experience (Harwood et al., 2013; 2015).
‘It$is$the$best$thing$you$can$do$at$uni’:$How$volunteering$as$an$AIME$mentor$enhances$university$
students’$learning$and$positively$impacts$their$community:$Good$Practice$Report!
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When presenting findings about the mentors learning at a recent equity practitioners’
conference, an Indigenous Elder pointed out that the scope of the mentors learning points to a
‘tragic’ lack of Indigenous studies being taught throughout primary and secondary school.
That they learned so much, pointed to the fact that they knew so little and this was a sad state
of affairs. Whilst there is a big push both in educational policy and Indigenous Education
scholarship for this to change in schooling, it is important to recognize that universities have
the capacity, and we would argue ethical responsibility, to engender significant learning for
their students around cultural and social awareness and respect for Indigenous knowledges,
cultures and values at university.
We suggest that Indigenous mentoring programs are effective vehicles for learning and
enhancing the university experience and graduate quality. These Indigenous mentoring
programs not only provide vital educational experiences for mentees but are also effective
vehicles for learning and enhancing the university experience and should be recognised as
such. One such recognition could be through acknowledgement of this type of participation
on university transcripts that includes the clear articulation of the scope of mentors’ learning.
As our research notes, this not only includes the considerable community service time and
effect provided by AIME mentors, but equally the contribution to achieving graduate
qualities and outcomes.
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