The Interview Australia
University of Canberra
Director of Student Life

Mara Eversons

Two of the most important things in fostering a sense of belonging and inclusion on a university campus are transparency and outreach. And you need to reach out in a lot of different ways, on all levels of complexity. Not everyone has time to do an in-depth response, and not everyone is on campus frequently, so you have to find those moments, in whatever amount of time students have. And just as important is following up in communicating what you have done in response to feedback, so people know and trust that you are listening and taking action. 

Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, spoke to Mara Eversons, Director of Student Life at the University of Canberra (UC), about how to best reach and communicate with a student populace in order to build a sense of safety and community on campus.

Mara’s Journey

Luke: What are some of the things to get right when embedding a sense of inclusion and belonging across a whole institution?

It’s something I think we’re all grappling with lately. Especially since COVID, that feeling of belonging seems to have disappeared for a lot of students and staff. We still have flexible working arrangements for staff now, with up to two days a week from home if it suits the area they’re working in. My staff are mostly all on campus because we’re student-facing so we need to be here. This year we have published and are working through an implementation of what we call the Student Success Framework, which talks a lot about student belonging. We touch base with students as often as possible. Our well-being and support team do a lot of outreach to students and weekly activities, whether it be a walk and talk or a “Craft-ernoon” or an excursion to a nature park. Things like that bring students together and provide an opportunity to chat. Our Medical and Counselling centre does coffee catch-ups and group work for different cohorts of students. It’s about engaging them where we can.

Luke: How do you get students to engage when it comes to these important topics?

It can be difficult. So many of our students work part-time, if not full-time, or two or three jobs to financially support themselves through their studies, so we don’t really have what they call that “sticky campus” anymore. One of the things we’re trying to do is pop-ups on campus so if we have a topic we want to discuss and we want student feedback. We’ll just set ourselves up at the library or on the concourse and just be there and say, ‘Hey, do you want to have a chat?’  We might have a pin-up board, and ask students to put a sticker where they agree or add a comment. They can talk for as long or short as they need it. It’s also about introducing topics into those walk-and-talks. What do you think about x? How would you like to engage? We’re making sure students have lots of different ways to engage. Sending the email or newsletter, putting up the poster, having a pop-up. We’ve also asked our academics to add a slide to their lectures here and there to plug various upcoming events, or ‘Here’s an issue, please send your feedback’. QR codes, social media—offering every avenue we can think of to catch students who hear messages in different ways. 

Luke: What is most important to get right when it comes to addressing issues like student safety and harassment on campus?

One of the big things is showing students overall that when an incident has occurred, we do listen and follow up on it. So often, we hear ‘What’s the point? What are they gonna do about it?’ For us, it’s showing students that when we have an incident reported or a disclosure to a staff member, we have responded. We’re not always very good at that as of yet, but I am pushing for that to be highlighted in the future. We also need to report on our website better. For example, students have reported that there was a dark corridor on the way to a car park, so we put lights in there. But we have to tell everyone that we did that and to make sure students and staff know we address and attempt to solve safety issues on campus. I’d also like to work next year with our well-being manager about more safe spaces for students: places they can just go and be with a staff member on-site to monitor, support, and assist.

Luke: How do you best go about keeping UC open to new ideas and buying into new ways of looking at things?

I think you’ve just got to keep hammering at people sometimes. You also have to make sure the new idea is resource-friendly, and not going to cost too much because as soon as there are dollar signs attached, people go into panic mode, especially being a small institution. We have to also make passive noise around the university because if anyone’s too aggressive, it’s going to be ignored or pushed away quickly. Making sure we continue to put our articles in staff and student bulletins. Engage with staff. As long as more people are hearing and talking about issues, it's gonna help when we do need funding or to make changes or implement a bigger idea. We’ve already got better support then. It’s those champions who are going to come along with us for the ride. 

Luke: What is the best piece of advice that you have received over your career?

I once had a manager who said to me, ‘You can make any decision you want as long as you’ve got a reason for it, so I can back you up when somebody comes back and asks, “Why did Mara do that?” If you’ve got a reason, I’m all good'. Which is really about transparency. Over the years, I’ve learned the importance of just being transparent with decisions. Any information you can share with people, share it. Make sure they’re included in those decisions.

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Luke James
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