Transformation at the cultural interface: Exploring the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander university students




cultural interface, Indigenous education, student experience, transformative learning


Research on transformative learning (Mezirow, 1991), particularly within the context of higher education, has demonstrated the significant impact university learning can have on a wide range of cohorts across diverse learning contexts. However, the extensive body of literature pertaining to transformative learning remains largely silent on the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander university students and the extent to which their engagement with academia can be transformative. Nevertheless, Nakata’s (2007b) cultural interface theory has shaped policy, practice and thought in Indigenous higher education, elucidating the nuances, complexities and challenges that confront Indigenous students in their journey through university. In bringing together these two critical theories, this study investigated the journeys of three undergraduate Indigenous university students finding that university can indeed be a site of positive personal transformation. Such changes were fostered through critical peer support relationships, relationships with family and loved ones as well as a growing confidence and pride in their cultural identities. These findings have important implications for the way institutions support and teach Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and provides a nuanced insight into their university journeys at the cultural interface.


Download data is not yet available.

Author Biographies

Braden Hill, Edith Cowan University

Professor Braden Hill is a Noongar Wardandi man and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Students, Equity and Indigenous) at Edith Cowan University. He has held institutional leadership roles at pro vice-chancellor and director level within student experience, Indigenous higher education, and student and student/staff equity. His research interests focus on Indigenous higher education and Indigenous/LGBTQIA+ socio-emotional wellbeing.

Caroline Nilson, Murdoch University

Associate Professor Caroline Nilson is a registered nurse/midwife academic researcher with the Murdoch University School of Nursing. Caroline is also a research member of the Murdoch University Ngangk Yira Institute for Change within the Coolamon Research Centre. Her research focuses on community co-designed Aboriginal translational health promotion and health education research with particular interest in the development of food literacy for improved health and wellbeing across the life course.

Bep Uink, Murdoch University

Associate Professor Bep Uink (she/her) is a Noongar woman and Dean of Indigenous Knowledges, Murdoch University. Her research focuses on understanding how socially determined disadvantage impacts the social emotional wellbeing of young people, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and how social systems such as higher education and racism can support or detract from young peoples’ wellbeing.

Catherine Fetherston, Murdoch University

Professor Emerita Catherine Fetherston was Head of the School of Nursing at Murdoch University from 2012 to 2021 and has a broad range of experience in research, leadership, management and curriculum development. Cathy has provided healthcare alongside Aboriginal Health Care Workers in their communities and has also participated in research and co-authored papers on Aboriginal community healthcare programs. In 2020 she collaborated to initiate the first Teaching Hospital/First Nations partnership for Western Australian Aboriginal registered nursing students.


Asmar, C., Page, S., & Radloff, A. (2014). Exploring anomalies in Indigenous student engagement: Findings from a national Australian survey of undergraduates. Higher Education Research & Development, 34(1), 15–29. DOI:

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2019). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people: Census.

Barney, K. (2013). “Taking your mob with you”: Giving voice to the experiences of Indigenous Australian postgraduate students. Higher Education Research & Development, 32(4), 515–528. DOI:

Barney, K. (2016). Listening to and learning from the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to facilitate success. Student Success, 7(1), 1–11. DOI:

Bennett, R., Uink, B., & Van den Berg, C. (2021). Educating Rita at the cultural interface: Exploring intersections between race and gender in the experiences of Australian Aboriginal women at university. Diaspora, Indigenous, and Minority Education, 15(2), 84–98. DOI:

Bennett, R., Strehlow, K., & Hill, B. (2022). Myth-busting in an Aboriginal pre-university enabling program: Embedding transformative learning pedagogy. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 51(1), 1–19. DOI:

Bessarab, D., & Ng’andu, B. (2010). Yarning about yarning as a legitimate method in Indigenous research. International Journal of Critical Indigenous Studies, 3(1), 37–50. DOI:

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2), 77–101. DOI:

Cameron, S., & Robinson, K. (2014). The experiences of Indigenous Australian psychologists at university. Australian Psychologist, 49(1), 54–62. DOI:

Chapman, A. (2017). Using the assessment process to overcome imposter syndrome in mature students. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 41(2), 112–119. DOI:

Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247. DOI:

Clandinin, J., & Connelly, F. (2004) Narrative inquiry: Experience and story in qualitative research. Wiley.

Curtis, E., Wikaire, E., Kool, B., Honey, M., Kelly, F., Poole, P., Barrow, M., Airini, Ewen, S., & Reid, P. (2015). What helps and hinders indigenous student success in higher education health programmes: a qualitative study using the Critical Incident Technique. Higher Education Research & Development, 34(3), 486-500. DOI:

Day, D., & Nolde, R. (2009). Arresting the decline in Australian Indigenous representation at university. Equal Opportunities International, 28(2), 135–161. DOI:

Department of Education, Skills and Employment. (2022). Higher education statistics.

Dirkx (2006). Engaging emotions in adult learning: A Jungian perspective on emotion and transformative learning. New directions for adult and continuing education, 109, 15-26 DOI:

Fredericks, B., Barney, K., Bunda, T., Hausia, K., Martin, A., Elston, J., & Bernardino, B. (2023). The importance of Indigenous centres/units for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students: ensuring connection and belonging to support university completion. Higher Education Research & Development, 1-14. DOI:

Fredericks, B., & White, N. (2018). Using bridges made by others as scaffolding and establishing footings for those that follow: Indigenous women in the academy. Australian Journal of Education, 62(3), 243–255. DOI:

Hall, L. (2015). What are the key ingredients for an effective and successful tertiary enabling program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students?: An evaluation of the evolution of one program. Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 55(2), 244–266.

Hall, L., Maughan, C., Wilkes, M., Thorpe, T., Forrest, J., & Harrison, A. (2015). Swimming not drowning – resilience as a key determinant of success for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander pre-tertiary students. Journal for Multicultural Education, 9(3), 159–173. DOI:

Harrell, P. E., & Forney, W. S. (2003). Ready or not, here we come: Retaining Hispanic and first-generation students in post-secondary education. Community College Journal of Research & Practice, 27(2), 147–156. DOI:

Hearn, S., Benton, M., Funnell, S., & Marmolejo-Ramos, F. (2021). Investigation of the factors contributing to Indigenous students’ retention and attrition rates at the University of Adelaide. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 50(1), 20–28. DOI:

Hearn, S., & Funnell, S. (2021). Evaluation of the pilot phase of a student support strategy to improve retention and completion rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 50(2), 247–255. DOI:

Herbert, J. (2005, Nov 27 – Dec 1). Owning the discourse: Seizing the power! [Conference paper]. Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) Annual Conference, Parramatta, NSW.

Hill, B. (2020). Transformation at the cultural interface: Exploring the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students undertaking university studies [Masters by research thesis]. Murdoch University.

Hill, B., Winmar, G., & Woods, J. (2020). Exploring transformative learning at the cultural interface: Insights from successful Aboriginal university students. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 49(1), 2–13. DOI:

Illeris, K. (2014). Transformative learning and identity. Journal of Transformative Education, 12(2), 148–163. DOI:

James (2002). Discourses and practices of competency-based training: Implications for worker and practitioner identities. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 21(4), 369-391. DOI:

Kasworm, C. E. (2010). Adult learners in a research university: Negotiating undergraduate student identity. Adult Education Quarterly, 60(2), 143–160. DOI:

Kinnane, S., Wilks, J., Wilson, K., Hughes, T., & Thomas, S. (2014). Can’t be what you can’t see: The transition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students into higher education: Final report 2014.

Kitchenham, A. (2008). The evolution of John Mezirow’s transformative learning theory. Journal of Transformative Education, 6(2), 104–123. DOI:

Kramp, M. K. (2004). Exploring life and experience through narrative inquiry. In K. de Marris & S. Lapan, (Eds.), Foundations of research: Methods of inquiry in education and the social sciences (pp. 103–122). Lawrence Erlbaum.

Mälkki (2010). Building on Mezirow’s theory of transformative learning: Theorizing the challenges to reflection. Journal of Transformative Education, 8(1), 42-62 DOI:

Mezirow, J. (1978). Education for perspective transformation: Women’s re-entry programs in community colleges. Center for Adult Education, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. (1995). Transformation theory of adult learning. In M. R. Welton (Ed.), In defense of the life-world (pp. 39–70). State University of New York Press.

Mezirow, J. (1996). Contemporary paradigms of learning. Adult Education Quarterly, 46(3), 158–172. DOI:

Mezirow, J. (2003). Transformative learning as discourse. Journal of transformative education, 1(1), 58-63. DOI:

Mezirow, J. (2006). An overview of transformative learning. In P. Sutherland & J. Crowther (Eds.), Lifelong learning: Concepts and contexts (pp. 24–38). Routledge.

Mills, J., Felton-Busch, C., Park, T., Maza, K., Mills, F., Ghee, M., Hitchins, M., Chamberlain-Salaun, J., & Neuendorf, N. (2014). Supporting Australian and Torres Strait Islander nursing students using mentoring circles: An action research study. Higher Education Research & Development, 33(6), 1136–1143. DOI:

Moodie, N., Vass, G., & Lowe, K. (2021). Special issue editorial: Systematic reviews in Indigenous education. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 49(1), 1–4. DOI:

Mukandi, B., & Bond, C. (2019). “Good in the hood” or “burn it down”? Reconciling black presence in the academy. Journal of Intercultural Studies, 40(2), 254–268. DOI:

Nakata, M. (2007a). Disciplining the savages, savaging the disciplines. Aboriginal Studies Press.

Nakata, M. (2007b). The cultural interface. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 36, 7–14. DOI:

Nakata, M., Nakata, V., & Chin, M. (2008). Approaches to the academic preparation and support of Australian Indigenous students for tertiary studies. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 37(S1), 137–145. DOI:

Nakata, M., Nakata, V., Day, A., & Peachey, M. (2019). Closing gaps in Indigenous undergraduate higher education outcomes: Repositioning the role of student support services to improve retention and completion rates. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 48(1), 1–11. DOI:

Oliver, R., Rochecouste, J., Bennell, D., Anderson, R., Cooper, I., Forrest, S., & Exell, M. (2013). Understanding Australian Aboriginal tertiary student needs. International Journal of Higher Education, 2(4), 52–64. DOI:

Patfield, S., Gore, J., & Fray, L. (2020). Degrees of “being first”: Toward a nuanced understanding of first-generation entrants to higher education. Educational Review, 74(6), 1137–1156. DOI:

Pechenkina, E. (2015). Who needs support? Perceptions of institutional support by Indigenous Australian students at an Australian university. UNESCO Observatory Multi-Disciplinary Journal in the Arts, 4(1), 1–17.

Pinnegar, S., & Daynes, J. G. (2007). Locating narrative inquiry historically. In D. J. Clandinin (Ed.), Handbook of narrative inquiry: Mapping a methodology (pp. 3–34). Sage Publications. DOI:

Powell, B., & Lawley, M. (2008). Australian Indigenous students’ tertiary education choices: Exploring the decision to enter higher education and choice of university. Journal of the Australian and New Zealand Student Services Association, 31, 23–41.

Rennie, S. (2018). Firing the will, forging the way: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students creating their stories around the university table [PhD thesis]. The University of Queensland. DOI:

Rochecouste, J., Oliver, R., & Bennell, D. (2014). Is there cultural safety in Australian universities? International Journal of Higher Education, 3(2), 153–166. DOI:

Schwartz, M. (2018). Retaining our best: Imposter syndrome, cultural safety, complex lives and Indigenous student experiences of law school. Legal Education Revue, 28(2), 1–23. DOI:

Shah, M., & Widin, J. (2010). Indigenous students’ voices: Monitoring Indigenous student satisfaction and retention in a large Australian university. Journal of Institutional Research, 15(1), 28–41.

Thayer, P. B. (2000, May). Retaining first generation and low income students. Opportunity Outlook, 2–8.

Tramonte, L., & Willms, J. D. (2010). Cultural capital and its effects on education outcomes. Economics of Education Review, 29(2), 200–213. DOI:

Trudgett, M. (2014). Supervision provided to Indigenous Australian doctoral students: A black and white issue. Higher Education Research & Development, 33(5), 1035–1048. DOI:

Tufford, L., & Newman, P. (2012). Bracketing in qualitative research. Qualitative Social Work, 11(1), 80–96. DOI:

Uink, B., Hill, B., Day, A., & Martin, G. (2019). ‘Wings to Fly’: A Case Study of Supporting Indigenous Student Success through a Whole-of-University Approach – ERRATUM. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 48(2), 206–206. DOI:

Uink, B., Bennett, R., & Van den Berg, C. (2021). Factors that enable Australian Aboriginal women’s persistence at university: A strengths-based approach. Higher Education Research & Development, 40(1), 178–193. DOI:

Universities Australia. (2022). Indigenous strategy annual report.

Wang, C. C., & Geale, S. K. (2015). The power of story: Narrative inquiry as a methodology in nursing research. International Journal of Nursing Sciences, 2(2), 195–198. DOI:

West, R., Usher, K., Foster, K., & Stewart, L. (2014). Academic staff perceptions of factors underlying program completion by Australian Indigenous nursing students. The Qualitative Report, 19(12), 1–19. DOI:

White, N. (2009). University-educated Indigenous women: Their struggles and triumphs in their leadership journeys. In J. Frawley, M. Nolan & N. White (Eds.), Indigenous issues in Australian universities (pp. 95–105). Charles Darwin University Press.

Wilks, J., & Wilson, K. (2012). Going on to uni? Access and participation in university for students from backgrounds of disadvantage. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 34(1), 79–90. DOI:




How to Cite

Hill, B., Nilson, C., Uink, B., & Fetherston, C. (2023). Transformation at the cultural interface: Exploring the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander university students. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 52(2).