“I worked really hard to get here.  I wouldn’t want to go back.”  Exploring the narrative of one first-in-family nursing student during their university transition.

“I worked really hard to get here. I wouldn’t want to go back.” Exploring the narrative of one first-in-family nursing student during their university transition.

Our guest Blogger this week is Associate Professor Sarah O’Shea from the University of Wollongong. I have known Sarah for nearly ten years and for much of the time we lived next door to each other. Sarah and I have much in common … we were both the first in our families to attend university, both immigrants to Australia, both mums who struggled with ‘imposter syndrome’ as we juggled PhD candidature and full time work.  Perhaps most important though is our shared commitment to student success and the incredible joy we experience when we watch our former students cross the stage at graduation, particularly when they have struggled with challenging life experiences. 

Since moving to Wollongong Sarah’s academic journey has flourished and I have watched with admiration her inspirational First in the Family research. In this post Sarah shares Marlee’s story of transition to university, what it means to her and her family, and how it illustrates the types of hurdles that many first in family nursing students encounter.

Nursing programs are the third most popular choice of study area in Australia [1]. In 2014 over 17,000 students started a nursing degree; 2,316 of these were men [2]. Over a third of nursing students are in the lowest socio-economic band and many are returning to education after a significant gap in learning [1]. There is a tendency for many universities to operate within a discourse of deficit focusing on what students lack instead of welcoming and celebrating the cultural wealth or strength they bring with them [3]. Working within a mass university system characterised by increased student diversity also means that it can be very difficult to remain mindful of the student as an individual.

My research with students has focused on foregrounding individuals’ subjective experience of attending university with an emphasis on the narratives of learners who are defined as disadvantaged or belonging to equity categories. This work has highlighted the transformative potential of attending university [4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9], the identity work that students (particularly women) undertake [10, 11], as well as approaches to retaining and supporting diverse student populations [12, 13].

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Listening to and telling stories fulfils a very basic need in people. As an educator hearing students’ stories has provided entry into the lived experience of attending university, offering rich insights into both the unique trajectories of learners and also providing a means to recognise common patterns or experiences across populations.

I would like to share one such student story that whilst unique also reflects common themes echoed across our First-in-Family (FiF) project. Marlee (pseudonym) participated in a study that focused on students who were first in their families to attend university [12]. FiF students are a significant proportion of the student population globally and while not recognised as a equity group in Australia are commonly regarded as being “at-risk” of attrition due to financial, cultural and academic issues [5, 6, 14,]. The FiF category can also be regarded as a ‘supra equity’ category [13] which traverses existing equity categorisations.

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Do we really need to teach health professionals to be empathetic?

Do we really need to teach health professionals to be empathetic?

Next month I am going to an Empathy conference in Oxford and needless to say I’m more than a little excited. For someone who is a self-confessed English history devotee the opportunity to meander around the 12th century university college buildings in the ‘City of Dreaming Spires’ will be wonderful. However, as an educator and researcher with a passion for exploring the concept of empathy, the conference promises to be thought provoking (even though we are forbidden from using either ppt or written notes in our presentations … eeek!).

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‘Healthcare is more than the sum of its parts. All healthcare professionals must be knowledgeable, clinically astute and able to provide empathetic care’1

I’ve become increasingly interested in empathy over the last decade. For a long time I thought that people were either born with an empathetic disposition (as I assumed most health professionals were), or they weren’t (these are the narcissistic people we’ve all met at some stage in our lives). I didn’t conceptualise empathy as a skill that should and could be taught.

Then along came Naleya Everson, an exceptionally gifted and insightful person who taught me so much about the empathy deficit. Naleya was one of my undergraduate students, she soon became an honours student and is about to commence her PhD. She set me on a path where I became determined to fully understand this elusive construct and to discover ways to teach and assess students’ empathy skills.

So often you find that the students you are trying to inspire are the ones that end up inspiring you ~ Sean Junkins

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Crossing the threshold … a journey of transformation from lay person to professional nurse

Crossing the threshold … a journey of transformation from lay person to professional nurse


At the lower end of the ancient Canongate in Edinburgh there is a worn sandstone lintel over a small seventeenth-century doorway. Inscribed in Latin are the words: ‘Pax intrantibus, salus exeuntibus’ … Peace to those who are entering, and safety to those about to depart. This engraving serves as a reminder that there is a threshold which marks the demarcation between what lies within, that place of familiarity and relative security, and what lies beyond … a place that is unknown and sometimes frightening ~ Meyer, Land & Baillie (2010).



I deliberately titled my ‘Blog Educating Nurses … Transforming Lives’ as I believe that one of the most rewarding aspects of being an educator is guiding nursing students as they step across the threshold and embark on the journey of transformation from layperson to qualified health professional. During this process of transformative learning, disorientating dilemmas become a catalyst for growth and change (Mezirow, 2000), and students learn to question taken-for-granted ideas, attitudes, beliefs, habits of mind and feelings, as they begin to experience fundamental shifts in perspective. This transformation requires learning activities that challenge students to think more deeply and broadly, to question their assumptions and prejudices, and to see their world and the world of healthcare through a new lens.

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The ripple effect of authentic patient stories

The ripple effect of authentic patient stories

Too often as educators we are short-sighted; seeing only the immediate impact of our teaching on students, but forgetting that every hour of every day a nurse is providing person-centred, safe and effective care because of something they learned from us. Emails like the one below remind us of the impact of our teaching …

Hi Tracy

I had to share this moment with you! I have been in hospital having surgery. I was extremely impressed at the precise way procedures were carried out by one of the nurses, especially with taking obs and the pain management etc. She was fantastic, not missing a detail in all the procedures she was doing. So much so that I commented on the professional way she went about her duties. It prompted me to ask where she had trained and it was Newcastle.

The conversation continued and she mentioned learning about a girl called Vanessa. She said she had never forgotten what she had learned about patient safety from Vanessa’s story. I then let her know that I was Vanessa’s father. She became a bit overwhelmed and said she would never forget that moment.

Thanks for being part of Vanessa’s legacy.

 Regards Warren Anderson


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