Featured Fellow | Sarah O’Shea

4th October 2017

Featured Fellow

Our featured fellow for October / November is 2015 OLT National teaching Fellow Sarah O’Shea.

Based on her desire to influence educational equity across HE institutions and the sector more broadly, over the last two decades A/Professor O’Shea has worked as both a researcher and practitioner in the field of university access and participation. Sarah’s skills at steering educational equity initiatives between various universities was recognised in 2012 when awarded an Australian Award for University Teaching Citation for ‘sustained commitment to student transition to university and educational equity in order to facilitate a culture of engagement’. This award acknowledged a decade of leadership in devising and implementing programs/resources to support students from diverse backgrounds (e.g. first in family, low socioeconomic (SES) backgrounds, Indigenous students, ‘second-chance’ learners and students who parent).

Building upon this earlier work, in 2014 Sarah and colleagues were awarded an OLT grant  (O’Shea, May & Stone, 2014) exploring the experiences of students who were first in their families (FiF) to come to university (n= 309). This study provided the foundations for the design and development of the first national (open access) website to simultaneously target three cohorts: i) current and intending university students who are th
e first in their immediate family to go to university; ii) their families and significant others; iii) HE practitioners including academics, policy makers and equity practitioners. Drawing on student and family member narratives, this website innovatively utilises the lived ex
periences of learners and their significant others to develop resources that engage and support.

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Such deep engagement with personal narratives has resonated with a diversity of end users, encapsulated by a recent review in Higher Education Research and Development journal:

The stories are authentic and tell of each students’ journey…Nona’s story resonates with those who are migrants. When I read her story it reminded me of my late grandmother who did not complete primary education but had an insight into what she could do to support me. Nona’s joy of seeing her grandson study at university and how she supports him, is very heart warming and her advice is practical (Wolfgramm-Foliaki, 2017).

The site is underpinned by a strengths-based philosophy (Anderson, 2000, O’Shea, May, Stone & Delahunty, 2017) that seeks to assist students and their family members to actualise existing skills and knowledges with the HE environment. Overall, the site seeks to celebrate the achievements of students rather than focus on barriers or limitations. This website resource has attracted widespread attention[1], with requests for site-links from other HE institutions, schools and the VET sector, as well as being identified as Best Practice in Student Support  (Australian & New Zealand Student Services Association, 2015).

However, Sarah’s influence on both students and educators in the context of FiF student experience extends beyond the virtual or online space. This influence can also be measured through the workshops and seminars she has been invited to present across the country
especially since receiving her Australian Government National Teaching Fellowship in 2015. This Fellowship built upon her previous work with first-in-family students and worked with institutions to explore best practice in retaining this cohort. The Fellowship developed a range of online resources designed to engage both the students and their families in this transition to university. Additionally, Sarah collaborated with outreach practitioners and equity stakeholders (n= 330) to develop the Principles and Strategies for Supporting First-In-Family Students and their Families.


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Since 2015, Sarah has also presented workshops to over 500 staff across 15 university sites in all states of Australia (except NT). These workshops have focused on supporting and engaging students who are first in their families to come to university. This work has been well received: 239 participants completed workshop evaluations with some 86% indicating that they were likely or most likely to apply ideas derived from the workshop to their professional context. The majority of attendees (89%) rated the workshop activity to be outstanding or above average, with 97% of respondents (n=227) strongly agreeing/agreeing with the statement ‘The information presented has increased my knowledge in this area [i.e. supporting and engaging FiF students]’.

The Fellowship outputs were also disseminated via a FiF blog (http://www.firstinfamily.com.au/blog/), complemented by an online newsletter via email. The impact of this Fellowship was further consolidated when Sarah was invited to work with several institutions to develop online tools and also provide capability building, mentoring and advice around strategies that might be implemented to support this first in family cohort within their own university context. This perhaps is one of the most rewarding aspects of a National Teaching Fellowship being able to not only initiate change but also witness the influence this work can have at both a local and practical level.


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Sarah’s work also has international appeal and in 2017, she was awarded an ARC Discovery project to explore the persistence behaviours of first-in-family students in the latter stages of their degree programs. This study is collecting data in nine universities across Australia, the UK and Ireland and will develop the first capabilities–informed framework to inform approaches to university student retention.

The international appeal of this research is also demonstrated through publications, which include two recent books (O’Shea et al, 2017 ; Harwood, Hickey-Moody, McMahon & O’Shea, 2017), both deeply explore the perceptions and understandings of HE participation amongst students who are traditionally under-represented in this sector. Sarah also deliberately seeks out other forms of dissemination that reach practitioners working in the field, this has included online open access sources (here and here) as well as open access journals with international reach.

For further details about Sarah’s work and publications please visit: https://scholars.uow.edu.au/display/sarah_oshea


Anderson, E. C. (2000, February). Affirming students’ strengths in the critical years. Paper presented at the National Conference on the First Year Experience, Columbia, SC

Harwood, V., Hickey Moody, A., McMahon, S., & O’Shea, S., (2017). The Politics of Widening Participation: Making Educational Futures. Oxford: Routledge.

O’Shea, S., May, J. & Stone, C. (2014) Breaking the Barriers: supporting and engaging mature age first-in-family university learners and their families. Office for Learning and Teaching Seed Project Grant

O’Shea, S., May, J., Stone, C., & Delahunty, J. (2017).  First-in-Family Students, University Experience and Family Life: Motivations, Transitions and Participation. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

[1] Site analytics indicate 14,000 individual visitors since the site went live in April 2015, most visitors view more than one page (n= 32,803 page views) and about one in five are repeat visits.