With a curriculum focussing on equity and justice, the WSU Festival of Action (FOA) has innovatively partnered students with staff to find sustainable solutions to address social issues relevant to students – like the climate crisis, food insecurity, and a lack of appropriate housing.
To fight these complexities right here at Western Sydney University, PhD candidate Thilakshi Mallawarachchi, Dr Jenna Condie, and Dr James Gourley have kickstarted this grassroots movement, open to all staff and students, regardless of their disciplinary focus.
Dr Jenna says that the vision behind founding the FOA is to encourage students to engage with the principles of equity and justice through practice. Simply put, Thilakshi also describes the curriculum as a coalition of students and staff all about event-based community development. After all, what better way to engage students in face-to-face advocacy than join some fun recreation – especially during this post-pandemic transition?
This co-designed curriculum was launched through the 21C Transforming Curriculum initiative to address the recurring themes of climate and social justice.
As a social justice advocate, Jenna says that the curriculum is about ensuring student and staff engagement, which is relevant and necessary to the current state of the world. This curriculum is a transformative space to make change happen, not just initiate conversation.
“We’re a collective, and in collectives, you can do big things. We want to change the university and make sure that the work that the university engages with is actually about dismantling problematic systems … So, we want to connect curriculum to advocacy and community as well,” says Jenna.
Student-staff partnerships are the bedrock of transformative action within an academic space. This coalition seeks to transfigure this concept into something bigger by including all levels of knowledge and experience.
The ability to work alongside staff is an empowering feat that Jenna says allows students to take a leadership role alongside staff. Despite this, the team also acknowledged the challenges tied to this.
For many, student-staff partnerships are a novelty for those accustomed to the stereotypical transactional student-staff relationship.
“The current FOA team is an interim transdisciplinary team of academics, and I think that that’s not always the way that every student kind of is comfortable working, let alone academics, let alone community,” says James. Despite this, current FOA students Jen Nguyen and Celine Nguyen share that they did not experience this through their engagement with the Festival of Action.
Jen and Celine are two first-year international students studying a Bachelor of Business, currently onboard as students alongside founders of the Festival of Action. Spending their first year in Australia, Jen, and Celine shared their experiences adjusting to a new environment and designing a curriculum in their first-ever advocacy and social action exposure.
“They are PhD candidates; they are academics, and it was really hard for me to talk, and I was scared of being judged at first… but eventually you realize they are really supportive. They always encouraged me to speak up and turned to Celine and me for FOA input,” says Jen.
As a recent student partner at FOA, Celine says the curriculum stands out by allowing students to participate in real-world issues at the university they study in. You can’t deny that designing a curriculum and creating change with staff that brings and share knowledge with you is refreshing.
“I respect and build from the fact that Western Sydney University exists not only just for study but also, the patchwork of community and ecology is that we can discuss climate and the future state,” says Celine.
“I really appreciate the opportunity that Western Sydney University offers international students like me and Jen,” she adds.
The current collective is part of a wider body of work exploring how this curriculum could be made meaningful to students and staff. Jenna says these possibilities will be further researched to carry on the transdisciplinary curriculum. On top of that, the team will look at securing funds to continue their work in 2023.
“We’ve got plans for sustaining it for 2023… and that’s about ensuring that we can support students financially by paying them to work for the Festival of Action,” Jenna adds.
The Festival of Action remains an open space for all students to unite great minds to contribute to a bigger cause. Not just that, students have more than just an engagement opportunity through this initiative.
For more information, visit the Festival of Action website here.