Representing Student Diversity in the First Year Experience [Guest Blog by Sue Nichols]

Who is the ideal first year university student? You are probably thinking that in this age of mass higher education, the student population has diversified so much that there is no longer a single kind of student – university is for everyone. Over the last year, a research team has been looking at the messages universities send through their public and institutional texts about who they are seeking to attract to university study. Then we have been interrupting these messages through a student participatory film-making project as well as a series of interviews with a cohort of first years representing the diversity of our student population.

Our snapshot of institutional messages covered three universities in South Australia and looked at their online and offline marketing including websites, billboards, television advertisements and brochures. Although universities seek to distinguish themselves from others in the marketplace, it seems that – by and large – they are all chasing the same customer profile. The ideal first year student, judging from these materials, is young, smooth skinned, lean, neatly dressed, normatively able and inclined to either smiling or pensive facial expressions. This student may apparently be male or female but will be cisgender: short hair for boys and long straight hair for girls. This student is often White but may have markers of non-White ethnicity (particularly in web-sites targeted at new international entrants). However, in age and body they will still conform to the idealised profile.

According to these institutional texts, the ideal first-year student loves to be with same-age peers studying or socialising on campus. But in the rare images that show students interacting with academic staff members, it appears that every one of them will get individual attention from an inspirational mentor.

We set out to discover who is actually joining our student community. Funded by a UniSA Student Engagement grant, a group of Media Arts students and staff formed a team of roving reporters. They were trained by documentary film-maker Caroline Man and provided with high-quality peripherals to use with their own devices. The team covered orientation activities at two campuses, one city based and one suburban. Their brief was to shoot interviews with first years and take still images which would contribute to a movie Diversity in the First Year Experience. All participants were asked for permission for this film to be shown to other students to elicit discussions about student diversity.

Interviews were filmed with nearly 50 new students of different cultures, ages, genders, and educational backgrounds. Their stories explored pathways into university, aspirations, hopes and concerns.

Still image taken during orientation

Practicing filming interviews


As this is an internal university project, we do not have permission to show the film externally. But what we can assure readers of is that the faces, bodies, stories and situations that were captured in this process were much more diverse, rich, inspiring, sobering and, to be blunt, interesting than the ideal student subject of the institutional texts.

One clear difference was in the presence of students’ families either materially – as companions on their orientation visits – or in their thoughts and histories. ‘Jeff’, who looked at first glance like a stereotypical history lecturer, told us that he was studying the same course as the one his son had recently graduated from, following early retirement owing to a health challenge. He was looking forward to kick-starting his brain into a new period of growth. ‘Demi’ had her sister and sister’s children along for the day; her little niece “wanted to see where aunty is going to uni.” Although young enough to be a  ‘mediatised student’, Demi was a beautifully curvy woman wearing boho-type clothes, not the neat polos and skinny jeans of the marketing posters. Coming from a TAFE experience that had “not worked out” she was looking forward to her new direction in creative industries.

Despite the intent and enthusiasm, our filmic representation of diversity did not capture all the people and stories that go into making a first-year community. It has to be acknowledged that we did not find individuals with evident disabilities, such as the use of a wheelchair for mobility or an assistance dog for navigation. The campus photos also tell the story of extreme crowding, hard-to-navigate grassy lawns, and ramps that could not even be seen in the press. One second year student twice came past our booth  and hesitated at some distance. When one of the crew approached her, she said she “might” be able to tell the story of her “horrific” first year and explained that she was living with a mental illness. We asked her to take some time to think about it but she didn’t come back.

Representations are just that. We are not arguing that our film tells the whole truth. However we do argue that their needs to be more attention to what our students are telling us about themselves, their lives, their motivations. There needs to be a richer tapestry made visible inclusive of students’ ages, languages, cultures, sexualities, and families, not just to do justice to these stories but to speak to those thinking, “I wonder if university is for me?”


Roving Reporters:  Jeff Broad, Anna Brown, Kelly Carpenter, Ajit Kawi, Bindi MacGill, Nodira Mitrovic, Sue Nichols, Sue Ninham, Jong Yoon

Film Maker: Caroline Man

Student Engagement Project Leader: Bindi MacGill

Researchers: Cassandra Loeser, Sue Nichols, Garth Stahl

Funding: University of South Australia

About the Author

Sue Nichols leads the Multiliteracies and Global Englishes Research Group in the Centre for Research in Education at University of South Australia. Her research in the fields of literacy, family involvement, practitioner inquiry and inclusive education has been supported by national competitive and university grants. She has worked in collaboration with many professional and community organisations to investigate learner participation and literacy development. Her research crosses diverse contexts including libraries, universities, school classrooms, kindergartens, shopping malls and religious organisations. As society increasingly moves into online spaces, her research and teaching has followed, investigating changing literacy and learning practices. She has written about these issues from the perspectives of place, networks, social relations and identity formation.


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