Working to help care leavers access higher education

Developing and implementing a revolutionary program, Louise Rak is breaking down barriers to higher education for students from an out of home care (OOHC) background.

Louise Rak in hallway

Over a decade of professional experience in community service roles across the Hunter has well-equipped Louise to implement a new program that is the first of its kind in Australia and internationally.

Live, Learn, Grow launched as a pilot program in 2016 and is providing students from a care experience with a range of tailored support services.

The program was developed in consultation with representatives across the sector and identifies some of the known issues that prevent care-leavers from accessing higher education.

“We’ve learnt that support systems, relocating and finances are some of the factors that have a huge impact on the decision to go on to higher education,” Louise said.

“Through the program, we provide subsidised on-campus accommodation and supported employment for the students who want it. We also created an on-campus role to help students navigate university systems and processes throughout the year.”

“All of our 2016 participants indicated that they wouldn't of made it past the first four weeks of University had it not of been for the support of the program, in particular, the individual support offered by our designated mentor role. We’ve been able to secure employment for those who were interested and heard anecdotal feedback that some students wouldn’t have considered going to university if it wasn’t for the program,” she added.

COMMUNICATION IS KEY

Louise’s focus is also broader than just a student level. She is working to create systemic changes across institutions, organisations and policies.

“The program has involved an active consultation group made up of government and non-government groups. We’ve also held on-campus days for people in care and caseworkers and we continue to talk with agencies to develop better ways of passing information along to better support the kids they are working with,” Louise said.

“By engaging these different cohorts in the program, carers, case workers and agencies are starting to think about how they are incorporating and communicating the importance of education into their work.”

“The program has been able to provide information to both students, carers and case/care workers about going to university and how to support education pathways, which is hopefully the start of a systemic change in how information is shared and accessed,” she added.

In 2017 the program is looking to work with young people in care, their carers and OOHC agencies to develop new areas of research that will better inform practice. This research and the educational outcomes will be guided and co-designed by those living and working directly in OOHC to reflect the realities and complexities of the system.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

There are no real limits on the possibilities for Live, Learn, Grow as a model to be taken up by other universities or adapted for other underrepresented groups in higher education.

“Ultimately we would like to see the program grow and become a fixture at the University of Newcastle (UON) and all other Australian universities,” Louise said.

“We’ve seen the potential the program is having and the difference it is making to the participant’s outlook of their future,” she added.

As Widening Participation Programs Manager, Louise is looking to affect positive change in other equity groups as well.

“My role is quite diverse and varied. As well as overseeing Live, Learn, Grow, I also manage the other widening participation programs provided by the Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education (CEEHE),” she said.

The programs cater for students at all stages of school, and are also moving towards supporting university students from diverse backgrounds, such as a refugee experience.

“Through these programs we are able to reach thousands of people every year and inform students and community members about their options for life long learning,” Louise said.

“There is still a lot we could be doing at an institutional level to change certain processes and services to ensure all students can access and successfully participate in higher education. We’re really striving to ensure the right foundations are set so students are properly supported into and throughout higher education according to their individual circumstances,” she added.

Live, Learn, Grow was initially funded by a Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Programme (HEPPP) 2016 National Priorities Pool Grant and is now fully supported by CEEHE and UON.

The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.