Reuben Bolt helps transition Indigenous students, strengthens Auburn’s ‘Australia connection’

March 2, 2018

Reuben Bolt Auburn University’s College of Education has historically placed great emphasis on outreach to underrepresented populations and identifying talent in these groups.  Examples are almost endless. Joni Lakin’s research helps broaden identification of gifted students in the widely-used CogAT test. Jared Russell has had great success recruiting students into our graduate programs, especially in Kinesiology, from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Marilyn Strutchens has been a key part of several NSF efforts to improve mathematics outcomes for both teachers and students. Melody Russell has won several grants to increase the numbers of underrepresented minorities entering and completing Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) graduate programs, including work in Alabama’s Black Belt region with colleague David Shannon. The Truman Pierce Institute hosts a very successful summer camp program for teens called Loachapoka Exploring Auburn Days, or L.E.A.D. The list goes on, and outreach remains a point of pride and emphasis in the College.

Likewise, the Department of Educational Foundations, Leadership, and Technology (EFLT) has enjoyed a ten-year relationship with a series of scholars from Down Under through its Australia Leadership International Experience for graduate students and faculty. This winter, the Department received grant funding to bring a guest to campus to discuss working with high school and first-year university students.

“For this special opportunity, we were able to bring to our campus Dr. Reuben Bolt from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) as our guest,” said Ellen Reames, Associate professor in EFLT. “Dr. Bolt is the Director of the Nura Gili Indigenous Programs Unit at UNSW, and is the first person of Aboriginal descent and heritage to earn a doctorate at the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Health Sciences. His role at UNSW is focused on transition programs into higher education for Australian Indigenous students. As a result of our return visits to Australia, our faculty and Dr. Bolt have become dear colleagues and we were thrilled to bring him to Auburn to meet the rest of our EFLT faculty and students.”

During his week-long stay, Bolt visited local schools and led classes for various EFLT faculty members. He also enjoyed a long lunch with faculty members, plus Auburn University Graduate School Dean George Flowers and Associate Dean George Crandall. Assistant Provost for International Affairs Andrew Gillespie was also on hand.

“Very similar to the many efforts you are making to recruit underrepresented student populations to Auburn, I am doing the same thing at UNSW to recruit Indigenous peoples across Australia,” Bolt said. “We have many challenges, including low socio-economic issues, health disparities, and low educational levels across K-12,but our commitment to succeed is strong.”

The Nura Gili Indigenous Programs Unit at UNSW, which Bolt directs, provides pathways to learning opportunities that embrace Indigenous knowledge, culture, and histories. The center strives for excellence in educational services and works to assure participation and access to all the programs it offers. The staff and students at Nura Gili support community outreach programs and work to promote the centrality of arts, culture, and heritage for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples throughout UNSW and the wider community.

“Recruiting Indigenous students into higher education is still relatively new in Australia when you consider the first person of Aboriginal heritage to complete an undergraduate degree in the whole country was Charles Perkins in 1966,” Bolt explained. “Indigenous students today have all sorts of cultural barriers when they come to campus. They want to pursue education, but not necessarily cultural assimilation. There are issues of diversity to consider, as well. In my community Yuin, we brought back dance and ceremony and language. While we are not fluent in our native tongue we recognize the centrality and importance of cultural continuity for who we are as Indigenous peoples. It is a key element of our identities. Australia is a vast country, and so too is the diversity among Indigenous Australians. At Nura Gili we are acutely aware of this and can cater to and engage Indigenous students in a culturally appropriate and meaningful way. We need to consider these kind of cultural issues before we even begin thinking about education at the University level.”

Sheri Downer, EFLT Department Head, believes that learning from other cultures helps us here at Auburn.

“It is important to us that both our faculty and our students understand the importance of a world view and the close connections between the culture of a people, and how the education of those people affect all of us,” she said. “We all have so much to learn from the successes of other education systems and world views, which in turn helps us become more successful educators.”

At present, Nuru Gili is located at the heart of the Kensington main campus. It services about 380 Indigenous students and employs five academic support staff and four pastoral care support staff. This staff-to-student ratio is quite good when compared to some of the other higher education institutions in Australia. Bolt noted Nura Gili espouses a family ethos, which has embedded an inclusive and supportive culture among its staff and students.

Bolt said the retention rate for Indigenous students at Nuru Gili is outstanding.

“We are careful in our selection process, and only admit those students we feel have the capacity to succeed,” he said. “Another thing we’ve learned about retention: if you talk directly to the person, either on the phone or in person, they are more likely to persist in their studies, and more likely to stay. This is a work in progress, but we believe it is a way to help our people and to ensure they are part of the future of Australia as a nation.”

Dean George Flowers agreed. As the meeting concluded, he said he was very encouraged to learn of these efforts, and saw strong parallels to things we are doing at Auburn.

“It comes down to this: we are all people.”