Cultivating an inclusive environment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Boarding Students

In the next few months, many Indigenous students will be preparing to leave their communities and move to the city to attend boarding school in 2021. In this blog, Dr Francis Bobongie-Harris explains how urban boarding schools can establish inclusive environments and support Indigenous students who move to regional areas to attend secondary school.

Tagai College on Waybeni (Thursday) Island provides students in Years 7 – 12 from communities in the Torres Strait Region with a secondary education. While many students attend Tagai College, there are some students who take the opportunity to leave their communities and attend boarding colleges for secondary school. This ‘Rite of Passage’, is often generational and in some cases expected. Leaving a community to attend a boarding college presents academic, social and cultural challenges. Some of these challenges include: homesickness, lack of friendships and peer support, numeracy and literacy difficulties, prejudice, stereotypes, racism and intolerance.

Ten years ago, Lisi made the transition to the city to attend boarding school. Lisi’s story like many others provides perspective about the significance of student voices and experiences when understanding the challenges of the transition process; how boarding college communities can overcome these hurdles and; the impact that these actions ultimately have on the student now and in the future.

Lisi: I don’t think my parents knew how scary it was, leaving home for the first time by yourself, travelling four stops away [by plane]…I didn’t know who I was looking for or who would be there waiting for me [when I arrived]. One of the supervisors was standing there with my name on a board. I was very shy. Yeah, the first couple of weeks the teachers at school tried to [talk to me] – we did a lot of breaking the ice activities. My biggest challenge was speaking English because I didn’t – I ‘ve had a few sentences here and there in primary school but I’ve never actually spoken a whole paragraph of English … I knew my native tongue and Creole, which is broken English. There are a little bit of English words in there but not enough for you to understand a teacher…

A successful inclusive environment for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students must extend from school to the boarding house. Student achievement is not only defined by academic standards, it also involves being able to survive socially and culturally. In order to achieve and maintain success there are two overarching goals to take into consideration. Community members, parents, students, staff and school board members must support students to walk in two worlds and support the development of self-understanding and self-determination.

Walking in two worlds

To adjust to the social and cultural changes that come with moving and attending boarding school, school communities and educators must support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to be part of both the school and boarding college community, and their remote communities. The idea that students are able to ‘walk in two worlds’ is ideal, not only while students are at school and trying to navigate the challenges that come with the transition process, but also when they graduate as well. Students need to have the skills necessary to operate and go between both. For example: Language. Learning English is important for students to be able to communicate at Boarding college. However, it is also essential that students use their own language when communicating with other Indigenous students in class and at the Boarding house. In my research, boarding college staff discussed this point:

Staff: They speak to themselves in language and I’ll never stop them from doing that, even in the office when they come in. If I’m meeting with them and they speak language I’ll say can you speak English so I can understand it. But when they’re not in the classroom or out and about I’d rather them speak their own language because they have to keep it going.

There are actions that educators and school communities can take to support students’ success as they begin to navigate the cultural interface between a mainstream and Indigenous society. These include:

  1. Teaching and support, provided by high quality committed teaching staff with an emphasis on English literacy and numeracy, while supporting students to also use their own language with their peers.
  2. Partnerships between students, schools, families and communities.
  3. Linking schools with different communities, increasing awareness and connection between the two. This can be achieved by: connecting with local Indigenous elders and community members on a regular basis; staff visitations with communities and by encouraging cultural participation in local Indigenous school and community events.


The second goal is Self-Determination – being able to know who you are. This involves the development of critical thinking ability and the skills and knowledge to decide ones’ own future. Lisi reflected on her past experiences and the positive impacts of attending boarding school:

Lisi: It was better for me to go away to boarding school. It helped. It made me want to learn English and speak English . . . In a way it made me feel independent . . . I think going to boarding school was better than Thursday Island I’ve got a fiancée and three kids – a son who’s eight, a daughter who’s seven and another daughter who’s five. [Working in retail] … It’s not something that I want to do for a long time. It’s just a job that pays the bills and looks after the kids. Boarding school’s done me good. I don’t regret anything.

Supporting students to develop self-determination is part of cultivating an inclusive learning environment. This requires a combined effort from all stakeholders in support of the students. Stakeholders need to explore the relationships between parents and schools and how these can be strengthened and how effective communication can be fostered using different strategies. These include Indigenous communities with extended kinship systems, the immediate school community (both staff and students) and the larger school community (parents and board members).

Indigenous stakeholders tell us that self-determination can be achieved through education by:

  1. Helping young people maintain a connection to their language, land and culture,
  2. Building a strong identity in learners,
  3. Helping young people to become strong in two worlds: both local and western,
  4. Supporting young people to engage in employment.

For all Indigenous students, success is measured differently. For some it means finishing school, while for others it is the successful transition to a career after school. To support students who move from their communities to attend boarding colleges in the city, to achieve and succeed, all stakeholders need to work together so that students can walk in two words and develop self-determination. Cultivating an inclusive learning environment by embracing each other’s uniqueness means that all students both Indigenous and non-Indigenous are better equipped to succeed.

Dr Francis Bobongie-Harris is a Program Co-Leader in the C4IE Indigenous Education Research Program. Francis is a Lecturer in Culture Studies – Indigenous Education. Her research focus is the improvement of educational opportunities for Indigenous children in Australia and Melanesian Countries in the South Pacific. Francis is a Chief Investigator on an ARC Linkage project that is investigating the implementation of Australian South Sea Islander historical content into the school curriculum in Queensland, through Community Led Research.

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