Josh Cubillo: Helping Indigenous Students Belong

Josh Cubillo “My family belong to the Larrakia and Wadjigan people and we're known as the Saltwater people. So now, as soon as I step onto those Countries, you know, I can smell the salt in the air,” explains Josh Cubillo, Indigenous Program Manager, MDHS.

“I can feel it on my skin, I can smell the resonance of the bushfires and the burning off and I can hear the sounds of the black cockatoo. So, all these different elements, where if you sit and rest with it, you can hear the country speak to you. And yes, it just really feels like a place that I belong to.”

But, at school and later at university, Josh Cubillo struggled to belong: “I guess being a student, I often didn't see myself reflected in the curriculum. So, it was very hard at times to feel engaged in what I was being taught and I probably didn't get the results that I set myself out to achieve. As I've gone on to higher education, I've been able to put into words and to theorize, why I was having these feelings.”

“I think if we can start to shift non-indigenous peoples’ ideologies on belonging and encourage care for the places that they inherit and belong to, we're going to see real acceptance of Indigenous people and Indigenous knowledges. With an increased understanding of land and Country comes that real onus for you to care and protect it as well.”

Now, as the Indigenous Program Manager, MDHS, Josh Cubillo’s role requires him to have conversations with teaching and learning staff  about why and how they should be embedding Indigenous knowledges in the curriculum and how it benefits not only Indigenous students, but everyone.

As the Indigenous Program Manager, Cubillo supports the Indigenous Associate Dean, which was Professor Shawn Ewan and is now Professor Sandra Eades and works under the guidance of Shawana Andrews. He has benefitted from their mentorship and sponsorship.

“I've been at the uni for five years now. And it's been a good place for me; for my learning and my career trajectory. And the biggest reason for that is I've had pretty good mentors and sponsors.”

“It's the first time that I've had an Indigenous manager or know someone that's Indigenous and that manages me while I've worked. From the get-go, I could feel that trust, whereas I haven't always felt that with non-Indigenous people.”

Cubillo completed his undergraduate degree in history teaching at the University of South Australia. He taught history in Adelaide for a few years before moving to Melbourne, where he worked at a number of non-government and community organisations, before he came to the University of Melbourne.

Now Cubillo is building on his knowledge and experience and is halfway through his PhD, where he talks to teachers to embed Indigenous knowledge into the primary and secondary school curriculum.

“I think we need to stop thinking about Indigenous knowledge as being something that's going to replace Western ideologies and rather as something that's really going to complement them. Then our understandings of the world are only going to be enriched by it.”

“My PhD topic is around understanding if non-Indigenous teachers increase their concepts of Country, will that help them embed and teach Indigenous knowledge? It very much complements what I'm doing in my work.”

Cubillo takes a holistic approach to his work, addressing three key elements: 1) helping the teaching and learning staff embed Indigenous knowledges into courses; 2.) working with the Faculty to build the Indigenous workforce, and 3.) helping Indigenous students transition from undergraduate courses to postgraduate study and those who come to university from other places.

  1. Embedding indigenous knowledge into the curriculum at MDHS: Dentistry

    Cubillo recently worked with the Melbourne Dental School on their Cultural Competency Plan and framework for instilling Indigenous cultural values into their courses, such as the understanding of place and Country and nurturing reciprocal relationships with the traditional owners.

    “If you know the history and cultural backgrounds of the people that are coming to receive healthcare, that's going to better prepare you to engage with your patients and to know how best to deliver healthcare advice. Building respectful relationships will help patients feel comfortable in attending the health service. At the end of the day, if you establish these relationships, then you're going to have an ongoing partnership with the local community that allows Indigenous people to have better health outcomes,” explains Cubillo.

  2. Building the Indigenous workforce: An Indigenous Community of Practice

    Cubillo has established the ‘Indigenous community of practice’ for all the teaching and learning staff members interested in embedding Indigenous knowledges into their teaching.

    “We get them together, four to six times a year, to share resources which we house on our intranet. We also get in indigenous knowledge experts to speak at these forums to help build the capacity of our teaching and learning staff.”

  3. Helping Indigenous students transition from undergraduate courses to postgraduate study

“Indigenous students are already charged with navigating an education system that doesn't quite reflect their cultural background - that in itself is an amazing feat. And that they make it to tertiary institutions. So, we know that the students are resilient and smart by the time that they get here,” says Cubillo.

Cubillo emphasises the importance of Murrup Barak and the Indigenous Graduate Student Association in supporting students and helping them feel they belong.

“The fact that they have a place at the university that they can come and study and talk with like-minded people and have support staff there to help them on their journey - it's really important, because the education system hasn't always been geared to support Indigenous people. Murrup Barak really strengthens people as they endeavour to finish their degrees and courses.”

The Winter School Program

MDHS set the target to enrol 20 PhD indigenous students by 2020. The Faculty exceeded that by four. But then it needed to ensure that these students were supported.

Cubillo won an Excellence Award for developing the ‘Winter School Program’ to address this gap. In 2021 it was taken up by three fellows.

“It was the gap between undergrad and the higher degree researchers that really needed to be filled. So that's where we developed a school program to help students who are really interested in taking those next steps into postgraduate courses. We showcased what the university or the faculty was all about; what courses were available; what students could expect to learn and what jobs they could expect to fill.”

“I think it's really important that students interested in postgraduate degrees see people that look like them, who are already studying in these courses and who are teaching into these courses. We also help students understand that their knowledge is being taught and is respected. That goes a long way to helping them feel like they belong.”

“I think our programs will help the university grow, because it's beneficial to have indigenous people taking up tenure at the university, whether that's through their learning or through professional jobs.“