Dr Brenda Holt
2009 Chancellor's Award Winner (Social Sciences)
Dr Brenda Holt, who is Chief of Staff at Trinity College and a PhD student in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, won the prize in recognition of her outstanding thesis on the identity issues of young women from rural backgrounds studying at an elite university.
Dr Holt has worked as a teacher and a counsellor before joining the higher education residential sector, where she encountered assumptions about rural and under-represented students that contradicted her personal knowledge of many such individuals. She grew increasingly interested in the fact that Universities base decisions about recruiting ‘access’ groups on statistics, and felt there was a gap in their knowledge about the identities of these young people.
Dr Holt’s thesis examined a group of female students from small rural towns on Access Scholarships at the University of Melbourne over a four year period. She used their own photographs and personal narratives to explore how the women described the factors that influenced their move to Melbourne and to higher education.
She found that, by the early years of secondary school, the women had not only constructed themselves as ‘leaving home’ but also, aided by their interactions with their teachers, family members and peers, a ‘smart girl who would leave.’ Dr Holt’s thesis demonstrates that ‘equity and access’ can not be simply measured by statistical data and need far more nuanced approaches. She also concludes that ‘access’ programs designed for underrepresented students will not interrupt a long-term identity narrative of a young person who has not identified as ‘one that would leave’ over time.
Significantly, Dr Holt’s research has led her to believe that Universities need to alter how they work with under-represented schools to recruit ‘access’ students. Rather than presenting to Year 11 and Year 12 students in low socio-economic and rural areas, Universities would be more likely to meet Government access targets and address equity issues if they start working with students from Grade 7 upwards. Further, in training and developing teachers, Schools of Education must better enable teachers to understand the significant role they play in their students’ identity-building about their educational aspirations.
Dr Holt’s thesis received glowing comments from her examiners, who praised its highly original methodological approach in particular. She credits her supervisors for their help in producing such an outstanding piece of work:
“My supervisors Professor Lyn Yates and Dr Julianne Moss were both wonderful. Their combined expertise really helped shaped my thesis, and I can’t thank them enough for all the time and effort they put into advising and supporting me."
“I am thrilled to win the Chancellor’s Prize; not just because it is a huge honour, but also because it means so many more people will hear the stories of the women who kindly gave up so much of their time to be part of my research.”