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Creating community on campus

In Education by Tom Cannon

The first year of university can be overwhelming. Students find themselves away from home in a new location, without friends or any other established support network. When you add in the pressure of managing new academic, social and lifestyle commitments, it’s not surprising some students struggle. Creating a community at student accommodation is crucial, as it helps them transition into their new lifestyle.

To find out how universities are dealing with this issue we introduced an award for ‘Best Student Community’ in our annual National Student Housing Survey (NSHS). For this article, we spoke to the winning and shortlisted universities to gain their invaluable insight on how they create community.

Terrific team

27450283In our 2016 survey we added a ‘Resident Life’ section which explored student satisfaction with the management of their accommodation. Over 70% of students surveyed rated their management positively and this was largely down to friendly and approachable staff. This certainly rang true with the universities we spoke to, all of which were keen to highlight the importance of a good team.

“A sense of community can help students to feel settled and at home in their accommodation, reduce homesickness and encourage engagement,” says Naomi Gray, Residence Life Coordinator at Swansea University which won the NSHS ‘Best Student Community’ award in 2015. “Residential Services work in conjunction with the Students’ Union on the Residents’ Network (ResNet) to put on events and campaigns through the academic year.” Student wellbeing is at the centre of many campaigns, such as during exam periods where “fruit and water is put out on reception desks (brain food!), stress balls given out, suggestions for positive mental wellbeing on social media and proactive visits to flats from the Welfare Warden team,” explains Naomi.

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Ian Jones is Head of Accommodation Services at the University of Sheffield which was shortlisted for the award in 2016. He explained how a dedicated team operate a year round ‘Residence Life’ program for all residents in university accommodation: “This spans from the Residence Life team providing welfare and support to Events Coordinators running free or discounted events and sports activities for our students. Employees working for ACS/UNICUS strive to exceed our customer’s expectations all year round and we are always on hand to help with any questions or queries.”

It’s an interesting point that Ian Jones raises, as it’s sometimes easy to forget that students are also customers. Neil Woollacott is the Deputy Accommodation Services Manager at Cardiff Metropolitan University, which was also shortlisted for the award in 2016. He was keen to stress the importance clear communication plays in such customer service: “A key factor is that the Halls Managers and Res Life Co-ordinator are very much in touch with their students. In some cases on a daily basis and operate an open door policy whereby residents can come and speak to the Managers regarding all manner of issues.”

d3-103And communication is especially important when a third party is involved. Alastair Reekie is the Accommodation Manger at Northumbria University which was shortlisted for the award in 2015. He explained how their accommodation partner has a dedicated Student Experience Manager: “We work with key partners including Student Living by Sodexo who manage our residences and ensure that creating a student community is one of their key priorities. They have a team of student facing staff, including a Student Experience Manager, who focus on delivering a fantastic experience for all of our residents through a variety of social and support measures.  We feel that the level of care and student focus provided by Sodexo exceeds that of other operators. This was one of the key decision making factors when the contract was awarded to Sodexo. The University’s Catering partner Chartwell’s also enhances the experience with theme nights in catered halls and cooking classes for students in self-catered buildings.”

Alastair explained how multiple teams work together in striving towards the best student experience possible: “The Accommodation team work closely with other University departments including Student Support and Wellbeing and the Students’ Union to personalise the welcome for arriving residents and offer a range of activities and opportunities for students during their time in our residences.”

27450318Carmen Shallcross, is a Communications Officer who works with the Residential Life team at Manchester Metropolitan University, the 2016 winners of the award. She explained how they utilise current students alongside their dedicated team: “We have a friendly and professional support system for students, based on the Residential Life model. Our new residents are welcomed by senior students living in halls who help them settle into university life. Our Residential Advisors also run campaigns and organise events during the year, creating a sense of community in halls. The Residential Life model was introduced in 2014 and is an innovative approach to pastoral care in university accommodation. It is a student-led approach where senior students offer new residents support and advice. Our Residential Advisors assist students in halls and promote respectful communal living. Creating a sense of community is at the heart of our residential model, which is based around the link between engagement, sense of belonging and academic success.”

Combining a terrific team with strong values is also important at St Mary’s University, which was shortlisted for the award in 2015. Nicola Mills, the Accommodation Manager there, told us: “We are really proud of the community we create for students. We have a strong support team including residence life coordinators, senior residents and resident mentors to make sure there is always someone available to listen, help or generally look after students. St Mary’s is known for its strong community environment. Our guiding values of inclusiveness, generosity of spirit, respect and excellence ensure that staff work to create an environment in which students are enabled to become the best people they can be.”

Varied events

Putting on a range of events is a great way to get students to mingle and begin to create a sense of community. Some students may be dismissive and consider events simply ‘not for them’, but the key here is variety and clear communication.

Those first few weeks are crucial for students settling in. To help with this Naomi told me Swansea University put on a freshers’ welcome party, bus trips to local areas and various welfare warden meet and greets. She explained how being mindful of different personalities can pay off too. “Social events in residences are usually alcohol-free and sometimes include smaller events such as film nights, which can help to include students who struggle with large-scale events or don’t drink alcohol,” says Naomi. While alcohol consumption might be popular, it won’t appeal to the whole student population. Creating alcohol-free events allows such students the ability to meet likeminded potential friends.

potato-544073_960_720Alastair also highlighted events as a way to make new friends and develop a support system away from home. “We acknowledge that moving away from home can be very daunting and the team try wherever possible to support students and encourage interactions. An example of this is when the Accommodation team delivered recipe cards and ingredients to all flats on student move in to allow new residents to cook their first meal together and bond. This was incredibly popular and served as an ice breaker for those students that may have been less confident introducing themselves to flatmates.”

It’s all well and good extolling the virtues of events, but it’s no use if nobody turns up. Neil explained how they attract as many students to events at Cardiff Metropolitan University by listening to feedback and tailoring accordingly: “Cardiff Met are also the first amongst the Universities in South East Wales to offer a Residence Life programme. The programme caters to the demands of the students, as long as they are reasonable. For example each term we visit every flat kitchen and ask them what events they would like us to hold for the term. It helps encourage event attendance and illustrates to the students that we genuinely want to help them get the most out of their time at Cardiff Met halls.”

TAKE PART IN THE NSHS

The survey runs from the 1st February to 31st of May and you can schedule your promotional campaign anytime within or throughout this period.

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Social space

Making friends, hanging out and enjoying a little bit of downtime is a great way to balance the academic pressure of university life. In order to do this, the space needs to be there. From well thought-out layouts to comfy sofas, there are plenty of ways student accommodation can encourage socialising.

One way to find out what works best? Ask! “Cardiff Met has focused on enhancing the community spirit over the past few years by listening to our resident students and responding to their needs. We have refurbished many of our blocks to include a clearly defined social space within their kitchen areas which has become the hub of life in each flat. This has been supported by an extensive Residence Life scheme which widens their ‘friendship circles’ and introduces resident students to the broader aspects of living in Cardiff and events they would otherwise not attend,” explains Neil.

d3-102As well as the social aspect, creating a new social space helps students settle in and treat their new accommodation like home. “We believe that if students feel comfortable in their homes and the offering exceeds their expectations then the sense of community will grow. We continue to invest in our social spaces to ensure maximum usage and encourage students to feel at home” says Alastair. Northumbria University has listened to feedback and consequentially “refurbished spaces, installed TVs, table tennis tables and upgraded our Wi-Fi to 100Mb speeds in all rooms and communal spaces.”

Naomi explained how they encourage feedback from students at Swansea: “Residential Services get suggestions from residents for ‘legacy items’ which are items which are provided for students that will benefit them in future years, and have included refurbishment of social facilities such as common room and provision of sports areas including basketball and 5-a-side courts.”

Digital transformation

It’s well documented that the current cohort of students are digital natives and avid users of social media. Catering to their ‘digital first’ attitude is another way to make them feel welcome and at ease.

Ian explains how they achieve this without sacrificing tradition at Sheffield: “Creating a strong sense of community is key for us to welcome our students both pre-arrival (Facebook block groups to meet flatmates) and upon arrival (welcome packs with all the information that they will require and mentor visits). We enable them to make friends easily and feel supported in their new home.”

At Northumbria University, Alastair tells us, they have invested in a sophisticated online booking system. It allows students to choose the building they live in, their specific flat and room as well as sharing a level of information about their potential flatmates. “Students can therefore choose the mix of students that they would like to live with in particular around gender, nationality and stage of study. We also have halls specific Facebook pages which allow students to make friends in advance of their arrival into accommodation and take some of the nerve wracking element away.”

Future community based plans

Ian explains the role that market research will play in the development of the accommodation strategy at the University of Sheffield: “The new 5 year Residential Accommodation Strategy outlines the commitment that we continually provide to improving our residences. We carry out market research with staff and students in the form of online surveys and focus groups. This allows us to be reactive to requirements and the continually changing landscape of student accommodation.”

He explains how the benefits for both students and the university are clear: “Students are able to reside in a pleasant, safe and welcoming environment where any of their needs can be met 24/7 by a member of our team – giving both them and their parents’ peace of mind. The benefits for the University are that we have been voted number 1 for Accommodation by our students 3 years running (2013-2016) by Times Higher Education Experience Survey. This demonstrates the high level of Customer Service and accommodation that we provide to the students.”

smiley-427160_1920Nicola Mills explains how settled, happy students go on to be a great asset for the university:  “At St Mary’s we place the student experience at the heart of everything we do and our students regularly rank us top in London for this (THE and Whatuni?). We believe that the community atmosphere is vital to this and for making sure that students have the best possible time while they are at university. This benefits the university because it means we have happy students, who will go on to be great ambassadors for the university, and it benefits the students because it means they have a great time while they are with us. We are always looking for new opportunities to improve our accommodation offering for students, to make sure they have the best possible student experience.”

Alastair pointed out that “there are a huge range of benefits for the university and student as ultimately we want all students to enjoy their time with us, do well in their studies, make friends for life and go on to succeed in their careers. Where they live and the community they are a part of is a huge contributing factor to this as they spend more time in their homes than anywhere else during their time at Northumbria.”

As such the university constantly looks at it portfolio to ensure it can meet the needs of all students. Alistair told us: “We are very fortunate that we have a range of buildings to suit all tastes and budgets and acknowledge that priorities differ for all students.” The university continues to invest in refurbishment programmes which Alistair says are inspired by “by student feedback, trends in the market and other industries to ensure our stock is fit for purpose and continues to be popular for our residents.”

It seems clear – creating community at student accommodation is a win win situation. Neil from Cardiff Metropolitan University sums it up: “there are clearly benefits for the University from a student retention aspect but more importantly it provides the students with an immediate sense of belonging and reduces the ‘fear factor’ for students leaving home for the first time.”

In conclusion…

A sense of community at student accommodation helps new students settle in and become part of the fabric of university life. As Neil pointed out, it benefits student retention and as Nicola mentioned happy students will go on to become good ambassadors for the university.

27450124Creating an adequately staffed residency team is a crucial first step. Friendly, approachable staff is a must, as is linking in with other university departments to ensure overall cohesion. Creating a varied calendar of events is a good way to make sure students from all backgrounds feel included in the community, this is particularly important during the first few weeks when students need to make new connections.

When it comes to future development, great attention should be paid to the physical space. A well thought-out design that encourages socialising is important. This could include clearly defined ‘hubs’ as well as facilities that encourage socialising such as table tennis. We are all well versed on the importance of digital when it comes to millennials and this should extend from before they start to after they leave. We particularly like Northumbria’s online booking system.

These principles, kindly shared by the winners and those shortlisted of our ‘best student community’ award, will help create happy, satisfied students, which is good news for all parties involved.

TAKE PART IN THE NSHS

The survey runs from the 1st February to 31st of May and you can schedule your promotional campaign anytime within or throughout this period.

Register