The challenge of how to describe program participants

Quill and chalk
(Photo: Chris Wightman)

At the moment I’m helping to writeup some research we’ve done with participants from Uni4You, a program at Family Action Centre, University of Newcastle (UON). Uni4You supports students who often have a lived experience of educational disadvantage, financial difficulties, caring responsibilities, childhood trauma, domestic violence, and/or health issues. They are often the first in their families, and their neighbourhoods, to enrol in higher education. The project works with people in their local communities and at local UON campuses, as they make informed decisions about lifelong-learning, journey through an enabling program at UON, and transition to an undergraduate program. The project includes information sessions; workshops exploring attitudes and aspirations towards lifelong learning; preparation for study sessions; peer-learning support groups; and scaffolded psycho-social support.

But in the writeup, we’re struggling with how to describe the participants in the program. According to the Australian Government, the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP), which funds Uni4You, aims to “improve access to undergraduate courses for people from low SES backgrounds and improve their retention and completion rates” (Commonwealth of Australia, 2012, Section 1.40.1).

In HEPPP, there is a focus on six “equity groups”:

  1. Indigenous Australians
  2. People from low SES backgrounds
  3. People from non-English speaking backgrounds or culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds
  4. People from regional and remote areas
  5. People with a disability
  6. Women in non-traditional subject areas (ACIL Allen Consulting, 2017, p. 39)

Terms such as “disadvantaged,” “marginalised,” “low SES,” “poor” or “vulnerable” are used frequently in literature talking about the people who are the target of HEPPP programs.

In the conversations we had with Uni4You participants as part of the research, however, none of the participants described themselves in these terms, although some community practitioners (who were also interviewed) did. For example:

I really like that idea, especially, with vulnerable and disadvantaged communities of people who we know that—not having an education and particularly not having a tertiary education is a real disadvantage, you know? (Participant 50)

In strengths-based practice, rather than being the objects of the processes and programs (i.e., they have something done to them), people should be the subjects of programs (i.e., they are the ones doing something). This means we want to describe Uni4You participants in ways that they would describe themselves and that they would identify with. At the same time, we need to show that Uni4You is supporting people who fit into the funding guidelines of HEPPP.

In HEPPP, students are considered to have a low socioeconomic status (SES) background if:

Their home address is in the lowest quartile of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas (SEIFA) Education and Occupation Index, based on the measure of low SES as determined by the Minister.6In practice this is currently measured at the ABS Statistical Area 1 (SA1) level. That is, students considered to be from a low SES background are those whose home address is located in the SA1 areas that contribute (cumulatively) to the lowest 25 per cent of the population on the 2011 SEIFA Index of Education and Occupation. (ACIL Allen Consulting, 2017, p. 12)

The communities Uni4You works in meet this definition of low SES. In addition, participants in Uni4You frequently face multiple layers of disadvantage and generally have lived experience of dealing with multiple complex challenges simultaneously (e.g., financial difficulties, caring responsibilities, childhood trauma, domestic violence, and/or health issues). For example, Figure 1 provides a profile of Uni4You participants in 2018.

Figure 1: Participant profile, 2018

But this is not how participants describe themselves. In fact, when Uni4You staff had conversations with Uni4You participants for the research, they were sometimes surprised when the participants did not raise many of the challenges they (the staff) knew the participant had faced. For example, some had faced significant domestic violence or mental health issues but did not mention them in the conversations.

Deciding how to describe participants in Uni4You has thus been challenging. We want to describe participants in a way that honours their skills, experience and potential, and that are based on characteristics, which we see through the research and the day-to-day practice, like resilience, capacity, determination, and resourcefulness. But this would not explain why Uni4You is a resource intensive program, nor explain some of the challenges Uni4You participants overcome in order to undertake tertiary study.

Of course, the two stories (one focusing on the challenges and layers of disadvantage, one focusing on their strengths and potential) are not mutually exclusive. For the report it will be a bit of a balancing act and we have invite a couple of past Uni4You participants to briefly introduce themselves in ways that capture both stories as attempt to show how they might describe themselves.

Throughout the report, we hope to write in a way that will resonate with Uni4You participants and remind readers that, while we might be discussing challenges and barriers to study, we are always talking about individuals who like all of us, also have many strengths and abilities, have good days and days, and have to make decisions about their priorities and options. 

If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:

  1. Power and strengths-based practice
  2. What is the Strengths Perspective?
  3. The struggle of trying to write
  4. 7 principles guiding my work
  5. My current projects (February 2020)
  6. 10 things I’ve learnt about strengths-based community engagement

If you find any problems with the blog, (e.g., broken links or typos) I’d love to hear about them. You can either add a comment below or contact me via the Contact page.


ACIL Allen Consulting. (2017). Evaluation of the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program.

Commonwealth of Australia. (2012). Other Grants Guidelines (Education)

Grimes, S., Scevak, J., Southgate, E., & Buchanan, R. (2017). Non-disclosing students with disabilities or learning challenges: characteristics and size of a hidden population. The Australian educational researcher, 44(4), 425-441.

Grimes, S., Southgate, E., Scevak, J., & Buchanan, R. (2019). University student perspectives on institutional non-disclosure of disability and learning challenges: Reasons for staying invisible. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 23(6), 639-655.

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
This entry was posted in Family Action Centre, Strengths-based approaches & ABCD and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The challenge of how to describe program participants

  1. Nic Stuart says:

    It’s interesting to compare this with the terms used to describe ‘PwD’ (people with a disability) and the way terms have been embraced and rejected over the years. The ‘House with No Steps’ changed its name to Aruma because it was merging with another disability service provider, having earlier rejected changing its name from a term that might be perceived negatively. So many issues in a name!


    • Yes, good point Nic. And then how do we describe people with a disability that captures their abilities and potential while also acknowledging limitations that might arise from their disability? I found that when we were applying for funds for projects supporting people living in caravan parks, it was easier to get funds by emphasising problems on caravan parks (e.g., on the parks we worked on there were often problems with domestic violence, unemployment and mental health issues) rather than emphasising the positives that existed on the parks (e.g., the sense of community, resilience, informal support.)


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