The Interview Australia
Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa Massey University
Executive Director for Student Experience

Amy Heise

In a time when the only constant is change, and the higher education landscape is shifting every day, institutions must embrace innovation or risk being left behind. As institutions come to terms with this new environment, they must also understand the changing needs of students, and provide them with the support they need to set them up for future success. 

In today’s conversation, Co-Host of The Interview Luke James sat down with Amy Heise, Executive Director for Student Experience at Massey University, to discuss some of the most pressing issues facing higher education in New Zealand today, from the importance of serving the needs of a diverse student body to the necessity of an integrated approach to student support.

Amy's Journey

Luke: Let’s begin with a brief introduction to yourself and your institution. 

Ko Amy Heise toku ingoa. Kei Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa e mahi ana. He Executive Director, Student Experience ahau. My name is Amy Heise, and I am the Executive Director for Student Experience at Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa Massey University in Aotearoa New Zealand. We have 23,000 students across three campus locations on the North Island of New Zealand, as well as a large cohort of distance learners. We have a highly diverse student body: 55 per cent of our students are distance learners, 60 per cent are part-time, and 55 per cent are over 25 years old. That sets us apart from most other universities in the country, which have large numbers of school leavers. We also have several programs which specifically attract students to Massey: we have the only veterinary school in New Zealand, as well as a strong design programme in our College of Creative Arts.

Luke: What inspired you to pursue a career in student services? And how did you arrive in your current role?

I’ve been at Massey for ten years now, and I’ve held a number of different roles during that time. I started off in student services, specialising in student accommodation. That had its roots during my time as a student when I started out as a residential assistant before working my way up to being an assistant manager of student accommodation. Over time, I built up experience in other areas of student services before I was appointed to my current role.

Luke: What’s your approach to cultivating a sense of inclusion and belonging for students from all walks of life?

We have a dedicated Student Safety and Wellbeing Framework which has been signed off by our senior leadership. That’s an integral component for delivering a student-first approach across the whole institution. We’ve taken a “No Wrong Door” policy: we recognise that students will seek support in the places they feel most comfortable, so we’ve put a lot of time and energy into empowering staff to support students and direct them towards the resources they need. It can’t just be something on the side: it needs to involve the whole institution. Early intervention is key, and the sooner we get students the support they need, the better the outcomes will be. 

Luke: Students have a lot of competing demands on their time. How do you cut through the noise and make sure they stay consistently engaged?

Above all, students need to know where they can get help and support. It’s our responsibility to make it as easy as possible for them. We have a case management system which helps faculty to identify and refer students who might need assistance. More people are reaching out for help when they need it, but not everyone is ready to take that step on their own. We also have a program of proactive, data-enabled student support which allows us to look at key metrics to identify students who might benefit from some support and advice. We have a team of coaches who take a unique approach to engaging with students, and that starts before they even arrive at university. Our new academic year begins in February, so our coaches will use the time until then to reach out to students and help them get set up for success. 

Luke: In a large university, it can be difficult to build a unified approach to student support. How do you ensure that teams across the institution are working together with a common purpose?

It’s true that we’ve had issues with silos in the past. But it’s important to be empathetic and mindful of the complexities that faculty and staff deal with on a daily basis. These changes take time, and they need to be built on trust. You need to have faith in the expertise that your colleagues bring to the table. It’s easy to overcomplicate things, so you need to have clear messages and deliver on your promises. Ultimately, student services is about people, so they need to be at the heart of everything. As an educator, you always need to be thinking about how you can improve, so we’ve put a lot of thought into how to break down barriers and improve our systems and processes. We all have a role to play in creating a safe, inclusive, and student-centred environment.

Luke: The field of higher education is changing quickly, and it can be hard to keep up. How do you make sure colleagues keep their minds open to new ideas and methods?

It’s important to have a vision of the bigger picture and be able to articulate that vision to the people around you. Make sure your strategy is tailored to the needs of your people; let them know what’s in it for them and how those changes can make things better. It’s also crucial to get people comfortable with the idea that things don’t always work. Failure will happen, and that’s okay. Great ideas are often iterative, and sometimes you need to refine them before they click. It can help to try things on a smaller scale before you scale them up. Ironically, universities aren’t always the best at learning new things, so it’s critical to try and instil a sense of innovation. 

Luke: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in your career? 

The work never ends. In this field, you could work 24/7, and you’d still have things left to do. People who work in student services are incredibly passionate, but sometimes things can get overwhelming. So you need to choose your priorities carefully and pace yourself so you don’t burn out.

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Luke James
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