Universities are increasingly dynamic institutions that are quicker to react to change and burgeoning student needs than the traditional concept of a university infrastructure suggests.
Patrick Ryan, Associate Vice President for Student Engagement at the University of Limerick sat down with GoodCourse (GC) to discuss how his background in psychology influences his role, his work engaging students, and the challenges when trying to make inclusive change.
I work at the University of Limerick as Associate Vice President for Student Engagement. It’s a new role that looks at much of the front-facing activity that engages with students. It’s as diverse as heading the leadership for library and information services, to our services delivered through our health and counselling centres.
Learners come not just with a curiosity about their subject area or discipline, but also their own life stories. Oftentimes, we can ignore or dilute that too much, and we can focus on graduation when in actual fact, to get the best out of our students, we need to adapt and be flexible so that students can adapt and be flexible too.
A big principle for me is focus on the interaction between systems and how it delivers services. Even young students are taking on additional responsibilities and their work life can be as important as their studies. To get the best for them, it’s about realising that we’re half of the relationship, and the students are the other half of the relationship — it’s a balance.
We do the traditional things, like gathering data to track students and cohorts, which gives us feedback so we can spot patterns and clusters that need responding to. I try and take it a step further by inculcating this relationship model. We’re predominantly housed on one campus, so there’s a real sense of community. We try to involve students in decision-making as much as possible, so they understand how certain decisions have come to be.
Having student voices around the table is really useful, but sometimes it’s really uncomfortable and we disagree. That disagreement is a natural part of the relationship. We’re not just graduating people into the working world, we’re influencing and shaping the lives, thinking and behaviour of people later in their lives.
It gives me insight into firstly knowing how to go and find information to work out what’s going on. As a clinician, especially around issues like mental health and well-being, I’ve learnt that these issues can be very severe and disabling, but people manage their lives with them and can pull through.
When we engage with our students, my first position is let’s not add additional stress, let’s work out what’s possible in the here and now, and also keep an eye on what the potential solution might be. People are resilient and we shouldn’t patronise them or act like we know best for them.
This has been really interesting for us, because diversity isn’t something we have a long history of, in part because we’re quite a small city. I’m very slow to isolate particular groups of students and say we need specialist services and support because they have a particular ability level or background. Something that’s been particularly exciting for us is that whilst new initiatives like our Silver Athena Swan application is doing well, we really want to mainstream this narrative, so that it’s not seen as us and the other — it’s just us.
That can be an uncomfortable thing for some, because it means we’re going to get things wrong. For me, it’s about falling into a tacit trap of isolation. Formally, I meet with the SU once a fortnight, but I see them informally much more regularly, and they keep me up to date with the success of events they’re having — seeing as I don’t attend them myself!
One problem is bully and harassment, especially on social media, where somebody’s identity is being targeted. Our mission is to keep students repeatedly engaged with education on these topics.
We’re got a gorgeous campus, but like anywhere it can be scary at night time. During event weeks for students, we support students union to recruit student volunteers to work from 9 to 1.30AM, to walk the campus and local community to pick up rubbish but also to help distressed students, to accompany them to residents halls or call them a taxi home.
Be aware that it’s hugely dynamic. Any sense of traditional ‘low energy’ place that universities are is over. It allows creativity and innovation, it can be a rollercoaster ride.
The students I work with in the sanctuary project, their choice to go into education is heroic, I feel inspired that they are motivated to go into further education.
Made in Italy by Georgio Locatelli. It’s a big book of Italian recipes, interwoven with stories from his life growing up. I love it because it reminds me of what’s actually important.