24 April 2024

New WEA Illawarra boss champions education evolution and community wellbeing

| Kellie O'Brien
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WEA Illawarra Natasha Osmond-Dreyer

WEA Illawarra’s new CEO Natasha Osmond-Dreyer. Photo: Supplied.

WEA Illawarra’s new CEO Natasha Osmond-Dreyer wants to continue evolving education, as alternative environments, connected communities and student wellbeing take centre stage.

WEA Illawarra combines two entities, the WEA Community College for adult learning and the Novo Education Space for students in Years Nine to 12 who need a different kind of environment to succeed in Wollongong, Nowra and Vincentia.

Natasha took on the WEA Illawarra CEO and Novo Education Space principal roles in March from David Fuller, and not only brings with her more than 20 years’ experience in corporate leadership and financial services from the UK to Australia, but also a love for lifelong learning.

She has an executive coaching qualification, an MBA through the University of Canberra, and is now undertaking a Master of Education at the University of Wollongong.

Natasha said her goal in the new role was to provide people who were experiencing poverty or suffering distress, misfortune, helplessness or disability with training, education, and advice, which “enhances their opportunities to take their life in a different direction”.

She said that meant providing a positive learning culture that bolstered the emotional and social health of learners and integrated knowledge from First Nations people and those from different nationalities.

“For our young people, they’re looking for welcoming environments that cater to their individual needs and for our adults many need foundational support that allows them to pursue higher studies,” she said.

“We need to grow and develop, and we need to be there as an alternative to mainstream education … because it doesn’t fit everybody.

“I think the days of teaching at children, whether it be mainstream or alternative education, are rapidly disappearing.

“We all have different ways of looking at things and we all learn in different ways.

“We really want to be that centre and community of lifelong learning.”

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She said at its core it was about helping people who didn’t necessarily know where to begin due to not finishing high school, not knowing how to read or write or not having English as their first language.

“For us, it’s that micro learning that gets people ready for bigger learning, because we still need to lay the foundation for people,” she said of learning fundamentals in language, literacy and now digital numeracy.

“We do that really well not only for our young people in our school, but we do it for our older cohorts of people that come into the community college.”

That wasn’t to say it was the only audience it served.

“We have retired professors from the university that come in because they want to find community and they want to find a group of people that love learning like they do and that’s where that connected community comes in,” she said.

“We can be so disconnected. Loneliness is such a huge thing for so many people.”

She said they wanted to better use some of the spaces they had within their campuses to create connected communities, referencing the success of cross generational learning through programs like those on ABC TV’s Old People’s Home For Teenagers.

“We have access to a broad range of people and I see it as our job to really think about culturally bringing people together,” she said.

“If you think about learning and education as the foundation for community, that’s what we’re going to need more of in the future.”

She said with WEA now marking its 111th year, the not-for-profit organisation was more important than ever as it looked to address the Illawarra’s growing unemployment rate.

“The WEA, like me, started in England,” she said, laughing.

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“The origins, when I think back to where it started and when WEA first came to Australia, it lay in the workers – the working-class people’s struggle for better pay and conditions and access to education.

“That is still with us today.”

She said the biggest difference today was the introduction of lifestyle courses, with computer skills to photography, cookery and creative writing.

Being a mother, Natasha said more than ever she was invested in what future outcomes were for young people, having become aware of how the system fails some people early in life.

“Unfortunately, more young people are failing by the year and more young people are coming out of mainstream education as well,” she said.

“So giving our young people the opportunity to thrive in an environment that suits them that is sensitive to their needs is important.”

She said WEA Illawarra followed the Berry Street Education model that focused on increasing engagement for all students, along with having a wellbeing team for students.

“We really spend time focusing on what our young people need to succeed and how we get them to have higher expectations of themselves,” she said.

“Just because you’re not in mainstream education doesn’t mean you don’t have a high expectation for what you can achieve because we can all achieve greatness in whatever shape or form that is.”

They were now looking to open a fourth Novo campus, expected to be in Shellharbour within the next six to 12 months.

“I think we’re probably the best kept secrets in the Illawarra and that’s absolutely something I want to address,” she said.

Learn more about WEA Illawarra.

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