The Interview Australia
University of Sydney
Deputy Vice Chancellor for Indigenous Strategy and Services

Lisa Jackson Pulver

Step onto a university campus, and you should find more than just lecture halls; you should encounter an institution which reflects the community it serves. This sense of community service is central to the work of Lisa Jackson Pulver, an acclaimed Professor of Public Health and Epidemiology who also serves as the Deputy Vice Chancellor for Indigenous Strategy and Services at the University of Sydney.

Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, sat down with Lisa to discuss some of the most pressing issues in Australian Higher Education, from the legacy of the pandemic to the importance of increasing access and support for students from first-generation and indigenous backgrounds. 

Lisa's Journey

Luke: Can we start with a quick introduction to yourself, your role, and your institution?

My name is Lisa Jackson Pulver and I’m a Professor of Public Health and Epidemiology and the Deputy Vice Chancellor for Indigenous Strategy and Services at the University of Sydney. I’ve been here for a little over five years now. I’m speaking to you from Sydney, which is home to the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation, who have lived on this land for 60,000 years. 

Luke: I’d like to know more about your story. What inspired you to pursue a career in higher education?

That’s a long story! I started out as a student nurse in the hospital-based training system before qualifying as a registered general nurse. After that, I went to medical school with the ambition of becoming a brain surgeon. I was the first person in my family to ever go to university. But I had a dreadful time in medical school, so I decided to pursue a career in Public Health. I really found my home there, and I went on to do a graduate diploma and a PhD in Epidemiology. Alongside that, I have also studied for a Bachelor of Arts in Defence Strategic Studies. 

Luke: What are the key things to get right when trying to embed a culture of inclusion and belonging across an entire institution?

It’s vital for students to have a dedicated space where they can feel safe, get to meet each other and build a sense of community. So, three years ago, we opened the Gadigal Center, which is dedicated to the needs of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander students. Since then, we have noticed our enrolment numbers increasing by 19% year-on-year, and we also recorded higher retention and graduation rates. Another crucial aspect of our approach is serving groups which have traditionally been under-represented and under-served. Nowadays, forty per cent of the country are first or second-generation Australians. That diversity needs to be reflected in our university; as an educational institution, our mission is to serve the community around us. We put a lot of work into recruiting students from diverse backgrounds, whether that’s first-generation students or people from disadvantaged socio-economic circumstances. 

Luke: Student retention is a key concern for many universities, especially when it comes to students from underrepresented backgrounds. How do you make sure students understand what support is available?

That’s difficult because a lot of students become overwhelmed after they arrive at university. It’s nothing like high school: there is no one to tell you off if you don’t attend class that day. Students have freedom, but with that comes responsibility for their own learning. One of the things which works well for us is student ambassadors, who have spent a couple of years at the university and can offer one-on-one orientation for new arrivals. We have ambassadors from a whole range of backgrounds, so no matter who you are, you can see that success is possible. We also have tons of clubs and societies: whether you’re a singer, a diver, an archer, or anything else, you’re sure to find something that suits you. 

Luke: Higher education is changing at an unprecedented pace. If institutions don’t change, they risk being left behind. In light of this, how can we encourage people to keep their minds open to new approaches and ideas?

Things have really changed since the pandemic. Like many institutions, we had to move our entire curriculum online within weeks of the first lockdown. We’d never have been able to do that if it wasn’t such an emergency. Without that rapid response, we might have had a whole generation of students who failed to complete their studies. And it was more than just classes: we had to get thousands of laptops and tablets out to students and staff and support our international students who’d been trapped by closing borders. That time showed me the flexibility, agility, and drive of our staff and, despite the challenging circumstances, the remarkable response of our people was a joy to behold. Everyone was in it together, and it really helped to break down some of those entrenched barriers. However, some people have found it hard to bounce back, and are still reluctant to come into the office or mix in crowded places. We’re still adapting to the new environment and coming to terms with those changes. 

Luke: What’s the best bit of advice you’ve ever heard in your career?

Just keep going. Put one foot after another. If you’re going through hard times, just remember: this too will pass. Finally, stay open to new ideas and opportunities. Don’t be dismissive of things that seem different or difficult. Many of our indigenous students come to university, and they feel like they don’t belong here. That comes from a long history of being treated differently. When I started out, I would have never dreamed I would be as successful I have been. But at the back of my head, I knew I deserved a chance just as much as anybody else.

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Luke James
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