Being sensitive to student needs and finding novel and relevant ways of engaging them is essential when developing an inclusive campus. Dr Aleata Alstad-Calkins, Director of Student Support and Success at the University of Roehampton, believes that it is of the utmost importance to listen to the student voice and be attentive to their needs.
She sat down with Charles Sin, Co-host of The Interview, to discuss how she fosters a sense of belonging on campus, some unique initiatives she is proud of, and her career to date.
My current role is Director of Student Support and Success at the University of Roehampton, which means that I oversee the teams that support students at all stages of their academic journey from pre-entry and beyond into a successful career. I have led the development of a new directorate, which is more proactive and predictive in our strategic approach to supporting students.
I fell into it, if I’m perfectly honest. I had three roles within the student experience teams while I was studying for my doctorate, which snowballed into other amazing opportunities which I couldn’t turn down. It has been an amazing journey, and I am beyond thrilled to have taken this path. At the crux of it, supporting students and working with students to solve issues is extremely rewarding. Before this, I worked in the prison system, NHS, and charity sector — very different!
That is a really important question. We contribute towards inclusion and belonging in a number of ways. First, we proactively reach out to students who aren’t engaging with their studies to ensure they’re okay. All the teams involved with supporting students ensure to check in with the social aspects of our students’ lives and then make connections to link them closer to our larger community.
All the teams involved with supporting students ensure to check in with the social aspects of our students’ lives and then make connections to link them closer to our larger community.
There are countless opportunities to network and partake in the community at every university — from sports to societies, including many focusing on social issues. But the one that is unique to Roehampton is that we have a programme called Growhampton which is a sustainability initiative that allows students to grow and harvest their own food, giving students the chance to learn how to take care of themselves and the earth. It is such a wholesome and incredible way to give students a sense of purpose and belonging. And a great bonus is we have a cafe on campus that serves food made with the fresh produce we grow. We also have a chicken farm!
Being a psychologist has been useful on a daily basis. From managing my teams and supporting them through change to developing an effective support service that’s holistic to meet the various needs of our diverse community, but also data-driven and evidence-based. So through my experience, I can make bold decisions about what we can do to radicalise our approach to support. This drives forward an effective and robust service. The well-being team alone supports 5,000 out of 10,000 students annually, which shows how effective it is.
Psychology is so important in terms of understanding each other. If it was a compulsory field to study at school level, I think we would live in a much more peaceful and compassionate world — particularly in developmental and social psychology.
I ask myself the same question! As cheesy as it sounds, they say it’s not working when you’re doing what you love, so that’s part of it. But it is very demanding, and it can be tricky to find a balance, so I pack in activities that give me a sense of purpose in my personal life — mostly through travel, friendships, and hobbies — then I can stay energised and motivated to put my best self forward.
This has been my first and main focus. My PhD was on sexual violence. It is really important to me that we get this right in terms of fostering a safe community where people feel that they can reach out. So in 2016, I started a bystander intervention team, a peer-led prevention and postvention model where we have students work with other teams to raise awareness and provide intervention. We have seen such success with this model, which continues to be an important initiative today.
I think that the bystander intervention team is hugely impactful. What we’re going to do more of on a different route is that we have online consent training and harassment awareness training. We hope to get to a point where every student completes it. We have the Report and Support tool, which enables another different approach. All of our disciplinary officers and front-facing staff complete rigorous training with our local Rape Crisis Centre. Additionally, we work very closely with our security team. This has been a priority for so long, all we want is to ensure that students feel safe to make the most of their time at University.
That is a very tricky question. I think that students engage with topics that are the most relevant and current to them. Of course, racism and discrimination are always important issues to tackle; plus, now more topical is the cost of living crisis and financial hardship. I think it’s important not to push our own agenda — it must be student-led. Every year some issues sneak up on you. Universities must work with their student body to work with them on what is topical at that moment.
I think it is really important that we continuously evaluate our communication strategy. What we used to do ten years ago isn’t going to work now, so we must be flexible and adapt. We need to host different events and engage them proactively, remaining agile.