'It Would Give You a Space to be Yourself'

Increasing a Sense of Belonging for Aboriginal Students in Boarding Schools

  • Emma Whettingsteel Curtin University
  • Rhonda Oliver Curtin University
  • Reena Tiwari Curtin University


Sense of belonging is a fundamental human need that is also shown to affect long term education and health outcomes. Theories used within interior architecture, especially place theory and environmental psychology, can be used to inform the development of built spaces, in this case for boarding school students in order to increase their sense of belonging contributing to potential positive outcomes. Within the emerging literature pertaining to experiences of boarding school for Aboriginal students in Australia, issues of loneliness, isolation, homesickness, and the feeling of being ‘between two worlds’ are commonly reported. However, there is currently a dearth of literature that connects these issues with a potential role for design and place. Therefore, the aim of this research is to address this gap through Participant Action Research (PAR) in which data was collected through semi structured ‘yarning’ and drawing with a total of 52 participants. 27 current boarders (all Aboriginal people, 2 male, 25 female), 18 recent alumni (All Aboriginal people, 3 male, 15 female), and 7 boarding staff members (1 Aboriginal person, all female) participated. Four key findings emerged that suggest the impact of interior design on student sense of belonging. These relate to the institutional characterisation of current boarding schools by participants (Place Identity), a need for increased flexibility to avoid an ‘all or nothing’ approach to social interaction (Interior Relationships), the need to allow student participation in ongoing design changes (Spatial Voice), and the provision of social and cultural relief through space (Third Space). These are described in this paper using the voices of the participants (which is particularly important given the researchers are not Aboriginal people). It is proposed that, although these findings report only a particular collection of voices, the potential application of these ideas may be broad and of benefit to many students.