When making any changes to an institution, asking students what they need and responding directly to their voices is an important first step. This is how universities moves towards more inclusive campuses as well as striving for academic success.
GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews speaks to Naomi Oosman-Watts, Director of Student Life at Newcastle University, about her role in creating a sense of belonging for students on a post-Covid campus, and the importance of listening to student voices when making strides toward inclusivity and belonging.
I’m responsible for the student experience which includes student engagement, student communication, integration, and inclusivity. I am also co-chair of our Racial Equality Charter self-assessment team and I chair our Race Equality Network.
I’ve always been passionate about supporting people. I’ve worked in careers services and further education — I actually made my way to HE student experience via careers. I’m motivated by helping students and seeing the difference HE can make in people’s lives.
I’m most proud of our social mobility programme, which was about getting students into work through opportunities to learn about different sectors and networking, especially sectors that feel less accessible.
I’m proud of a lot of work around Covid, like managing to set up a Covid test centre in about three weeks, keeping students safe and ensuring they had everything they needed. It sounds basic but it was logistically very difficult and we feel we came out of the other end successfully, making the experience easier on students.
It taught me that we can be really agile and work in different ways. My area was set up to leverage that way of learning and deliver the student experience in a new way, co-developed with students. We put together a lot of services and support that they needed and we now have the drive to innovate and deliver services more rapidly. In particular, it’s thinking about how we create things that are fit for purpose.
I'm proud of a lot of work around Covid, like managing to set up a Covid test centre in about three weeks, keeping students safe and ensuring they had everything they needed.
We did see reduced engagement over Covid. We are a very campus-based institution and we rely on that atmosphere, so we were looking at the benefits of these new ways of doing things. We want to keep the ways in which we made services flexible and accessible for students.
Definitely having things more accessible and available online in particular. If English isn’t your first language then being able to recap lectures and understand the material is really helpful in the development of academic language. Having more flexibility of being able to access things at different times and from different places is really important too.
We also noticed that our study spaces were really heavily used during Covid which made us think about how to create a sense of community and a more welcoming space for our students.
It’s about revisiting our services and thinking about how we make them inclusive by default, rather than creating something and then going back to it and trying to make it inclusive. This comes down to talking to our students at each step of the process, and asking how each step might make it hard for someone to access that service. The main thing is that we start with the student voice and what they need to make something work.
All the time — because we are looking from another perspective and students know exactly how we can change things to make it easier for them. There are things we don’t think about because we aren’t on the receiving end, so it’s vital to ask these questions and get feedback. There have been times students have told us of small and doable things that change the whole experience which we can easily implement.
My colleagues in the Wellbeing team do most of the on-the-ground work with regards to hate crime and sexual violence, deploying wellbeing support within the academic schools, and implementing campaigns.
Some of the facilitatory work we are doing in student life is finding how we can work together more effectively to provide better support, and make sure that these key messages are visible on campus. We’re also seeing what we can do to take preventative measures and provide more information to address some of the issues that are coming up. This involves a lot of data analysis that we share with teams across Student Services.
Build your network and talk to people within the institution so you can do your job better. Then you see where there are synergies and fit your work in with the rest of the institution. Also, try to get involved with other parts of the institution because you never know what opportunities can come up.
I’ve been really fortunate to work with so many amazing people and some incredible women doing so much great work. I’d give a specific shout-out to Julie Sanders — a friend, a support and an inspiration to me.
The one I quote the most is 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, in particular, the circles of influence are so important because once you know your influences you know what you need to focus on. Also, Dare to Lead by Brené Brown for progression and leadership.