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Disability Practice in the Spotlight

STAR Program – University of South Australia

Supporting Transitions with a WIN-WIN Solution 

Photo of Stephen Manson and Alison Nuske

The University of South Australia are meeting the needs of students with disability transitioning into, as well as those transitioning out of, their university with the introduction of an innovative new program.  Their peer support program - Supporting Transition and Retention (STAR)-  provides transition support to new students with disability.  And by employing existing students with disability as transition assistants, they are providing valuable paid work opportunities that will assist these students establish their post-university career.  In this way, STAR provides a definite win-win solution for all involved.

“We established the program as we were noticing that many students kept coming to us with questions that could be answered by peers” said Alison Nuske, Disability Adviser with Uni SA. “And at the same time we had a number of second and third year students who were keen to get some paid work history and references on their Resume”.  Transition assistants are paid for up to ten hours work over the program. 

STAR commenced at the beginning of 2015 with a half day workshop for the transition assistants. “The training covered disability awareness training, as even though all the transition assistants themselves had disability, they didn’t necessarily know much about other disabilities, and enjoyed the opportunity to broaden their knowledge on these” said Stephen Manson, Manager of Inclusion at the university.   “It was also great to discuss their transition experiences, and we have been able to use this to further develop the content of the training and a workbook for the program”.

The STAR Workbook provides a great starting point for what issues the students may want to cover in their meetings.  It includes confidentiality and disclosure, self-advocacy, social transition, balancing studies with wellbeing and self-care, study skills and on-line learning.  For example, many students have difficulties navigating the on-line learning requirements, such as submitting assessments and Alison has found it works much better if students can be shown how this works by other students.

“The workbook has discussion points rather than being a prescriptive guide to follow.  It takes the anxiety out of the first few meetings for both parties as they are given some ideas of what they can talk about” says Stephen.   They are continually enhancing the workbook with learnings from the program, and input from the student’s experiences. 

Campus orientation is one of the key issues that new students are supported with.  This involves walking around the campus with the transition assistants to familiarise themselves with facilities and resources.  This also means they can take time to find the spaces that they are most comfortable with, including for some students a quiet space to go to when needed. 

Stephen and Alison suggest that using the experience of existing students with disability is an important feature of this program.  Students are matched carefully, taking into account their campus (Uni SA is spread over 4 metro locations), their study program and personality. “Matching students with disability with transition assistants with disability is quite powerful.  New students can know that other students with similar issues have been successful” says Alison. “And it’s great to see the fantastic connections develop, and the difference it makes to the student’s transition”.

The transition assistant training is held before semester one commences so the students and assistants can be matched as early as possible.  “The beginning of first Semester is a mad time of year for everyone, so we’ve made sure the training is held way before this time and we are all set to go as new students come on board.  Though we’d like to be able to match students before the semester begins as well” says Stephen and Alison.

The students are identified and referred through the university’s Disability Advisers.  It is targeted at those students who are most at risk of not transitioning well into the tertiary study environment.   Some students can be hesitant to take up the offer of the program though, as it can be one more new person for them to deal with. Stephen and Alison would like to market STAR more effectively to students.  “Some students with ASD are particularly anxious about meeting someone new, so it would be great to have some on-line resources to help alleviate their anxiety, and emphasise that the transition assistants are just another student” says Alison. However once the match is made, and the introductions are held all students have engaged enthusiastically in the program. 

The feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive from both sides.  “The transition assistants have really enjoyed the experience and have been proud to be part of the program.  And for many of them it has been their first job, and it’s been great to be able to supply them with work references to help with their transition into employment” says Stephen.

By paying the transition assistants up to ten hours for the program over the semester, this means there is a lot of flexibility for both the assistant and the students.  They can decide how they use this time, either with a regular meeting or waiting until they have some specific issues or needs arise.  The only real stipulation is that meetings are held on campus. 

Since the program commenced in 2015 eleven commencing students have been provided with transition support.  While there is potential for the program to grow, at the same time it needs be managed within existing time and financial allocations.  And they want to maintain the quality of what is being done.  “Firstly we are demonstrating to our uni that it is a very beneficial and worthwhile program” says Stephen.  “And it’s comforting to know we are doing this in the context that our institution already has a strong overall commitment to mentoring, as it is part of our Strategic Plan”.

Stephen and Alison are looking forward to presenting a paper on the STAR program at the Pathways Conference. For more information on the program visit their website.