This week’s blog comes from Dr Janine Delahunty and reflects upon the notion of intersectionality and how this plays out in students’ lives. Drawing on the data collected from the current Discovery Project on First in Family persistence behaviours, Janine provides a snapshot of both the resilience and cultural strengths that our diverse student cohort draw upon in enacting success within the HE environment. The participants in this study were all in the latter stages of their degrees, reflecting upon the qualities and resources that enabled them to succeed in this environment.

Until the next time,



Image: NCCJ

The term ‘intersectionality’ was originally coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw as a frame to understand race and gender bias as contributors to social inequality. It has since been expanded to include multiple aspects of people’s identities, such as race, Indigeneity, gender, class, age, ability/disability. Olena Hankivsky explains:

 Human lives cannot be explained by taking into account single categories, such as gender, race, and socio-economic status. People’s lives are multi-dimensional and complex. Lived realities are shaped by different factors and social dynamics operat­ing together (p. 3).


Similarly, Museus and Griffin (2011) emphasise the need to acknowledge these complexities – as an essential step in capturing the ways which multiple social identities shape lives. Over the last few years of first-in-family research, we have been struck by the diversity of participants’ circumstances – intersected by multiple equity categories. In our book, intersectionality was a fundamental starting point to acknowledging the complexity within participants’ particular biographical and cultural contexts.

In the ARC Discovery Project (on Higher Education participation and success: Investigating the persistence strategies of students who are the first in their family (FiF) to attend university) participants were given the option to self-select as many of the six equity categories that applied to them: Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander student; student with a disability; student from rural/isolated regions, low socio-economic (LSES), non-English speaking (NESB) or refugee background. Of the 378 participants (72 interviews, 306 surveys), 12 identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. The multidimensionality is notable with eight also indicating LSES backgrounds, six from rural or isolated regions, three whose language background was not English and three with a disability.

Intersectionality can impact the student experience in a number of ways. One may be the sense of responsibility to give back to family and community, as Angela explains:

I live in a remote Aboriginal community, and I see myself as a role model for children and other young adults … My family and community think that it is a good thing, that I am, and will be great at what I do when I graduate and bring my degree home as it will benefit the community. 

(21-25 years, University A).

Angela also speaks of geographical remoteness which disadvantages people living in these regions:

Access to the university itself [is a barrier]. I live in a remote area and travel for university study blocks through a Block release mode for 2 weeks at a time.

Another impact of intersectionality is the compounding nature of barriers to be overcome. Ellen raises the bar for sheer grit and determination,

I was 18 and was unable to read and write, then I met my partner and he was the one who helped me then I went on to do a numeracy and literacy course for three years after this I went on to do a bridging [course] then went on to University. I first want[ed] to do uni to show people that I can but then it became more a way for me to build self confidence and self worth.

(31-40 years, University E)

Also, Felicity:

Success to me means not giving up. I class myself as a successful student because despite the challenges life has thrown at me-too single parent, no income, away from family, another baby, postnatal depression, I’ve not yet ever handed in a late assignment or failed a subject.  I just keep going.

(26-30 years, University F)

Lack of schooling is a huge challenge in itself to gaining entry into a degree. Hugh’s situation (31-40 years, University H) is commendable – his family “were surprised given I only went to year 7 at school”. A consequence of this was that he had to deal with “people saying I would fail”. Intersectionality impacts on equitable opportunities for education, and as Hannah ponders:

I reckon I could name on both hands how many people have one [a degree] so it is a really big deal for us and the community, and still very unknown.

(26 years, University I).

Photo by Andrés Gerlotti on Unsplash


These are but snippets of some students’ stories which are unique but at the same time, provide a glimpse into a collective story about what it’s like to be the first person in your family from the perspective of intersectionality. These narratives are rarely just about being ‘first-in-family’ – rather they are multi-dimensional, reflecting some of the impacts of intersectionality on the experience of learning, but also on persistence in higher education studies, in spite of challenges.

If you are interested in reading more about conceptualisations of success as narrated by students from diverse backgrounds, watch out for our forthcoming article: Getting through the day and still having a smile on my face! How do students define success in the university learning environment? (O’Shea & Delahunty) Published by the HERD Special Issue on Student Success (August 2018).


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