Many university staff will know that when it comes to attracting new students, the quality of the accommodation and social spaces on offer is crucial. Keeping student spaces running well throughout the year is a big task, especially as universities continue to adjust to the post-pandemic world.
As Director of Student Plus at Queen’s University Belfast, Caroline Young oversees all of the practical aspects of student life, and makes sure that students understand how to access support when they need it.
GoodCourse Community Engagement lead Kira Matthews asks Caroline about what she learned throughout the pandemic, and how she is leading her team forward this academic year.
I’m currently the director of Student Plus at Queen’s University Belfast, which means that I have quite a broad remit: my team are responsible for lots of services and facilities on campus from sports and childcare to accommodation and food and drink.
I’m also our Student Union’s main point of contact with the central university, and outside of this, my team are currently planning and organising key events like graduation and many of the academic conferences we will host on campus this summer.
I didn’t intend to work in the Higher Education sector – my background is in hotel management. But I wanted to move back to Northern Ireland, and when I found this role I thought that it could be a perfect fit.
Young people don’t see barriers to change in the same way we do, they challenge the norm, and that’s why I enjoy working with them so much.
Many people who are new to the sector often don’t realise how large and complex universities can be and that can be challenging. For me, one of the most refreshing aspects of working in HE is that young people don’t see barriers to change in the same way we do, they challenge the norm, and that’s why I enjoy working with them so much – it keeps us questioning how to improve.
I’ve been at Queen’s for seventeen years now, and we are always changing how we work as student expectations evolve.
I lead a really fantastic team who are experts in their field and incredibly passionate about supporting our students. We put a lot of time and effort into considering how we can be at the cutting edge when it comes to delivering a quality student experience. One thing we’ve grappled with is creating more student-centred engagement and ensuring we have a model for student living with a positive and supportive residential life team, that is made up of staff but very much supported by students. We’ve tried to be agile in adapting to student needs, especially over the course of the pandemic.
Belfast has a diverse international population, and I’m proud of how we’ve been able to support these students settling into life and becoming residents of the city. An example of one system that we set up a few years ago and are now evolving is the international buddy system, where undergraduates and postgraduates sign up to mentor a first-year student. This has really helped new students settle in and navigate university life and Belfast.
In September, we’re opening a new £40m student centre called One Elmwood with the aim of bringing together all the different parts of the student experience, including our Student Union and the university’s student services under one roof. We are all really excited for this, and proud of the work that so many of our teams have put into it. This new facility will act as a catalyst for student engagement as we come out of the pandemic-
None of us knew what was going to happen in March 2020. We gave all students the option to go home and end their student accommodation contracts, but many of our international students didn’t have that option as borders were closing. In all, around a thousand students kept living in our accommodation over the first lockdown.
Many of our staff were nervous and anxious, but they came together to support these students and I’m very proud of them for that. What this period taught me was how to recognise the difference in every situation and listen to students about how to support them best. It also showed me the importance of having good digital provisions in place, so that we can pivot quickly in any circumstance. Most of our students want to have an in person student experience, but having online options as a backup helps everyone.
Mental health and well-being were naturally very important topics during the pandemic, and we’re carrying our learnings from this time forward. Our jobs involve showing students the help available, and making sure that they know how to engage with it in a way that suits them best. At the moment, we’re rolling out a student mental health survey to understand how they are feeling right now, and how we need to adapt to better support them.
Working with young people helps me stay energetic and agile, and listening to students as much as possible is really what makes that happen. I try and stay curious and authentic in my work and involve colleagues and stakeholders across the university when we are bringing new ideas forward.
I really admire our Student Union’s officers, for their confidence and passion about bringing forward change and representing their fellow students. I’m not sure I would have had the courage to stand for an election at their age, let alone to want to effect the level of change they do!
Dare to Jump, by Cedric Dumont. It looks at life through the lens of an elite athlete’s mindset and attitude, which taught me a lot about dedication and perseverance.