Fostering a sense of belonging on campus, particularly in the wake of the Covid-19, is critical to ensuring young people get the most out of their time at university, and thrive academically.
Marianne Dunne, Director of Student Services at Maynooth University, spoke to Kira Matthews, GoodCourse Engagement Lead, about her journey into higher education (HE), developing support networks for students and more.
I’m the Director of Student Services here at Maynooth University. I’ve got responsibility for the leadership of the personal support for our students. I work with an excellent team of professionals who deliver excellent needs-led, student-focused support. We really look at the whole person and support them in all their different needs.
We’re currently (2022) ranked number 1 in Ireland in the latest Times Higher Education (THE) best young university rankings. The institution traces back to its foundations in 1795, connected to the Royal College of St Patrick. We have over 15,000 students from over 100 countries. It’s a lovely place and I feel very lucky to work here.
My move to Student Services was both accidental and intentional. Before coming to HE, I was a social worker. I reached a point in that role where I felt I was no longer being challenged. I really enjoyed it but I needed a new challenge. I stumbled across a student support role, and felt it was well suited to me.
I qualified as a registered social worker in 2005, and it gave me the opportunity to work internationally which was such a gift. I feel really fortunate to have parents that encouraged me to travel — you can learn so much from people from different parts of the world. You can learn so much from exposure to other cultures, it teaches tolerance, equality and respect.
You learn a lot about yourself in other countries because you don’t have your usual support network. If something challenging happens in your life, you have to find new ways to support yourself through that. It’s a learning experience that is also relatable for students, as many of them are living away from home for the first time.
I feel like person-centred work is where I’m strongest — it’s the core of what Student Services is about. When a student comes into our building, I want them to experience support and know we are here for them.
It’s looking at holistic well-being. If we look at the areas that everyone needs to succeed in, in order to succeed in education, you need emotional well-being, physical well-being, spiritual well-being, financial well-being and more.
University is a formative time and a lot of growth is experienced — challenges arise for everybody. Giving people pillars of well-being supports them so they can thrive and do their best.
It’s so crucial for students to feel a sense of belonging on campus. It underpins their potential to succeed. Our student help desk team reached out to students who were struggling with engagement during the remote learning period. We did this in conjunction with our academic departments. Many of the students we contacted with that initiative said things like ‘it’s just not for me’, and we tried to explain to them that it’s not that you don’t fit, it’s that what you’re experiencing isn’t a normal Higher Education experience.
It’s so crucial for students to feel a sense of belonging on campus. It underpins their potential to succeed.
Now we’re back on campus, it’s interesting how things can flip back. At Maynooth, it happened really quickly — it’s fantastic because the energy is back on campus, but we’re conscious that people don’t have the connections and social networks they need if they joined during lockdown.
So, we’ve set up coffee mornings and chat sessions for students. We also collaborate with the students union and mark days like mental health awareness day, and try to share key messages throughout the year so it doesn’t all get pushed at the start of semester.
Something we need to do more of is student feedback, and hear what they like and don’t like when it comes to our outreach.
That student engagement initiative was such an important piece of work. We reached out to over 1000 students, and if we couldn’t get to them by phone then we emailed with supports they could avail of. We successfully contacted just under 500 of them, some of them were fine but others needed pointing to the right support. It fed into a larger student success initiative that we’re currently working on.
Our Chaplain is about to start a podcast series focusing on student life at Maynooth, we’re trying to reach students in the ways we know they absorb information — we know so many people love a podcast. If it’s done well it’s a nice space for reflection.
Our Counselling Team have developed a really thorough collection of evidence-based workshops targeting issues that are shared across the institution. They’re offered in a hybrid format — it includes yoga, grief, developing healthy relationships, resilience, anxiety and more. We’re trying to support students so they learn the skills of supporting themselves.
I’m still new to the sector but I would advise people to be authentic in their interactions with people, stay true to yourself and your values and build a strong support network.
I’m lucky to work with the team I work with. The word that comes to mind is change-makers. In terms of leaders, our new president Professor Eeva Leinonen, she’s our first female president and has worked across the globe in a wide variety of cultural contexts and I admire her desire to take on those challenges.
The Body Keeps The Score, anyone working with people that have experienced trauma in their lives should read it.