Health program attracts students from across the NT

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

First Nations students from across the Northern Territory gathered Darwin this week to explore opportunities to study health in the second year of a successful new Charles Darwin University (CDU) program.

CDU’s First Nations Introduction to University – Health program begins this week, welcoming students to the Casuarina campus from around Darwin, Milikapiti, Gapyuwiak, Ramingining, Galiwinku, Ramingining, Jabiru, Donydji Outstation and Tennant Creek.

The free program explores the various pathways into health qualifications and careers, introducing students to fields including community-controlled health care, occupational therapy and speech pathology, emergency health care, psychology, health policy, and research.

The program emphasises how First Nations students can incorporate their traditional knowledge into Western education.

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The First Nations Introduction to University – Health program is among CDU’s suite of introductory programs to launch this week for 2024. Students can also enrol in introductory programs for teacher education, arts and humanities, and STEM, with CDU also supporting students into higher education with its First Nations Pre-Business, Pre-Accounting, and Pre-Law programs.

Caring for community

CDU Health Sciences Lecturer Dr Emily Gilbert hoped to continue the success of last year’s program and highlighted the importance of growing the First Nations presence in the health system.

“First Nations people are best cared for by First Nations people – this is why it so important to increase the number of First Nations students in health-related courses and then ultimately the health workforce,” Dr Gilbert says.

“Our inaugural health pathways program in 2023 saw five of the seven enrolled heath students successfully begin their journey, four of whom enrolled in a health-related undergraduate degree and one student in TEP at CDU.”

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Course numbers continue to grow

In 2024, numbers in the course have grown considerably with CDU this week welcoming 17 students to the program from around the Territory.

“It is really exciting time for these students – who have taken the next step in their journey, and we look forward to supporting the students throughout the program and beyond. Recent years have seen an increase in the number of First Nations people employed in the NT health workforce – however First Nations people remain under-represented in every health profession – but also in non-clinical roles such as research, policy and project management – which are just as important,” Dr Gilbert told EducationDaily.

“That is why our program has been designed to expose students to not only a broad range of medical and allied health career-pathways, but also a range of non-clinical health care career pathways as well. We really just want students to have a taste of the wide range of health-related courses available at CDU so that they are able to make a well-informed choice on their next steps.”

Deepening understanding of tertiary education sector

CDU First Nations Health and Culture Specialist Ian Lee said the program would provide students with critical insights into tertiary education.

“It is fantastic to see the CDU’s First Nations Introduction to University for Health program growing each year, and it is so good to have a quarter of the enrolments from remote Aboriginal communities,” Mr Lee says.

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“The enrolments are only the start of their pathway, and the real success is going to come from the students completing their studies at TAFE or higher education, but every student is to be congratulated for their courage for taking each step towards a career in health.”

Problems with health in remote Aboriginal communities are compounded by geographical isolation, limited health workforce, socioeconomic disadvantage, as well as intergenerational trauma and the environmental challenges,” Mr Lee says. “More local health professionals are desperately needed in all remote Aboriginal communities.”

CDU Faculty of Health Pro Vice-Chancellor Professor Dominic Upton says having First Nations healthcare providers working with First Nations communities is important because “a shared cultural understanding can help improve patient care, improve access, and support service development”.

“More First Nations healthcare professionals can provide better access to culturally safe care, which in turn can support improved health outcomes,” he told EducationDaily.

“You cannot be what you cannot see. The program will introduce a range of health care professions to participants so they can decide what is best for them and their communities. Aside from the health benefits, supporting more First Nations people into healthcare can also increase access to important, well-paid employment.”

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Improved accessibility to quality healthcare leads to better health outcomes

Dr Gilbert told EducationDaily her hope for the health-focused program is that the student numbers continue to grow each year – “and as a result we see more First Nations people progress to studying a health-related degree at the tertiary level”.

“We are also looking at how we can better integrate ‘both-ways learning’ into the program curriculum and how we can improve the availability and accessibility of the program through an on-country learning model. We look forward to continuing to work with our partners across the NT to build the health workforce that is needed.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]