When did you join the University and why?
I joined Kent in 2012 as a Student Support Officer in the School of Arts. Before that, I was a schoolteacher and worked for ten years in patient advocacy and support for children and young people with long-term medical conditions. I liked the idea of supporting young adults and gaining more experience in HE so when a friend mentioned the SSO post I was keen to apply. I did some lecturing in Arts alongside the Student Support role, but support services were where my interests lay. Becoming Head of College and Community Life last year has given me the chance to have a wider reach and influence over student experience, support and welfare; it’s a perfect fit.
What does being Head of Colleges and Community Life involve?
The University has eight colleges to which all students are affiliated when they come to study here. The College and Community Life team builds college, community and belonging for students on and off-campus. We’re a small team with big expectations, made up of three College Life Officers, who host events, offer support and advice to our student college community, and one Community Life Officer, who supports transition into becoming local student residents in the Canterbury and Medway area.
As the Head of College and Community Life, I’m lucky enough to liaise with the wider student undergraduate and postgraduate communities, to share in their experiences and promote their voices, and to work with Student Union officers and central teams like House Keeping and Campus Security, to ensure the best experience for our students. I also engage with local community stakeholders, such as Residents’ Associations, Kent Police and Canterbury & Medway City Council officers, to promote student safety and integration. It’s a fascinating and rewarding role, and I am really enjoying it.
What effect has the pandemic had on your work and how have you responded?
The pandemic has been a challenge without a doubt but it has also been rewarding to see students and colleagues work so hard and creatively to support each other. The CCL team have been at the forefront of offering practical support to self-isolating students, including friendly texts and calls to mobiles to check how households are managing, sending out jigsaws and baking boxes to do together, and delivering gift-bags funded by alumni supporters to households living on campus. We have hosted events for all our students -, from remote coffee mornings and arts and crafts sessions on Zoom to a face-to-face Escape Room in our office and even outdoor mini-golf – allowing them to come together safely in line with Covid guidelines. With that experience, we are now planning wonderful welcome and social events across the coming year, which will support our new and returning students. If there are challenges remaining, we will be here offering support.
Looking ahead, what are you and your team planning over the next year?
We are very excited about next year. We will set-up our mini-golf course for Welcome Week, challenging students to complete every hole with bespoke obstacles and some great prizes to be won! Alongside this, we are aware that new and returning students may need more advice and support than ever to get that feeling of belonging and to make social connections. As well as our college BBQs and a welcome talk from me, we will have postgraduate volunteers, called Residential Life Assistants (RLAs), in all our colleges, supporting students to form a College Committee who can suggest events hosted by students for students. All are welcome to get involved by planning, hosting or simply joining in with the fun. Our Community Life Officer will be reaching out to students living in private term-time accommodation too, to give advice on how to stay safe, get on with your neighbours and get support from us.
One specialism in our team is mediation when housemates find it hard to settle into shared living together or need support making connections with others. There will be plenty of information on our College and Community Life webpages and social media, which I would highly recommend students look at and follow. Personally, I am very excited to see students face-to-face on our beautiful campuses and to watch them grow and thrive. That is what we are all here for, after all.
Outside work, how do you like to spend your time?
I am very boring, I’m afraid. During lockdown, I have discovered the joys of growing my own food on an allotment. I benefit immensely from being out of doors, and growing delicious food is a real bonus. Hopefully, many of our students will benefit in a similar way by volunteering at our Kent Community Oasis Garden. To switch off completely, I turn to fantasy novels (Urban or Pratchett are my favourites) and, once everything is open again, I will be having a cocktail and watching a film in a little cinema somewhere by the sea. Bliss.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
The best piece of advice I ever received and still use every day is “Go to the right people for the right support.” That is so true and it has helped me through some very difficult times. I pass it on, and don’t mind talking about when and what the context was for getting this advice.