Helping students integrate into a new city is difficult; the necessary approaches change yearly as universities welcome new cohorts with different needs. Making sure that both students and local residents benefit from strong relationships between town and university is a sizeable task, but one that can lead to excellent outcomes.
As Director of Student Experience at Aston University, Christina Matthews is constantly working on new ways to support student wellbeing and belonging. GoodCourse Community Engagement lead Kira Matthews asks Christina about her journey, and the initiatives she is proudest of to date.
The start of my journey was quite unfortunate. As a teenager, I had wanted to be a musician, but just before attending university I got into a car accident and injured my wrist, meaning that I couldn’t perform anymore. I still studied music at university, but left with a different sort of music qualification that wasn’t really in line with what I had wanted.
Once I graduated, I wasn’t sure what I should do in my career. At the time though, the government had a scheme called New Deal, aimed at helping people with disabilities gain employment experience. One option was to attend college, which I did. I studied a programming course and completed it very quickly, ending up helping the others around me with their studies. I was asked if I wanted to work in the student services department, which I agreed to. I started on a casual basis and never looked back!
Arriving at university can be a difficult transition period for all students, but international students also have to handle the experience of culture shock. Students are on what is known as the “W curve”, a well-known model of culture shock by Gullahorn & Gullahorn (1963). Students are emotionally up-and-down, missing home and struggling to integrate.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of ensuring every student can experience belonging at Aston. It’s about considering the different parts of the student journey and how those come together to produce a student’s whole experience at university. This changes every year with our new student intake.
I’m very proud of our collaboration with The Active Wellbeing Society throughout the pandemic. We worked closely with this group to mobilise volunteers from our student and staff body, to help support over 80 local food banks and provide care parcels in our local area. We also transformed our new Student Union building into the central Birmingham food distribution centre.
This work started right at the beginning of the pandemic, when one of our international students became ill with Covid and needed support with looking after themselves and getting essentials. It took us much too long to coordinate a response to this, and we realised that we could soon have a lot of students in positions similar to this.
Thankfully our student population didn’t need this kind of emergency support very often, and through our volunteer recruitment effort, we ended up with many more staff and student volunteers than we bargained for. That’s why we decided to reach out to local organisations to see what we could help with at that difficult time.
At Aston, we’ve always been very proactive about ensuring everyone feels a sense of belonging and knows they are supported. We do that by not singling out one movement as the most important, even if it’s the one in the news the most. We make sure students know that they can get support no matter who they are or what they might be struggling with, even if they think that there are more important things happening in the world.
At Aston, we’ve always been very proactive about ensuring everyone feels a sense of belonging and knows they are supported.
We work closely with our Student Union to make sure that this message reaches students — not just in Welcome Week, but throughout the year. We have a lot of postgraduate, part-time and apprenticeship students at Aston, who aren’t the usual participants in traditional freshers’ week activities. For this reason, it’s imperative that communication with our students about the support available isn’t confined to the first week of every year.
Be yourself — you can get into jobs and positions that look great on paper but aren’t right for you if you aren’t true to your own values and goals.
Two Aston women: Professor Helen Higson, who started as an administrator in 1985 and worked her way up to Provost and Deputy Vice Chancellor, and Nicola Turner, who now works as Director for Legacy for the Commonwealth games. Both serve as great examples for women in Higher Education in particular.
The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini. It’s a great example of how different cultures shape a person’s outlook and experiences in the world.