Often in life, it can be easy to misinterpret people’s lack of participation in any given event or opportunity as a lack of interest. Sometimes, however, it can be because people either didn’t know that it was available to them in the first place or didn’t realise how it might have been beneficial. Universities can be a great place to not only teach students the skills to make these connections but for the educators themselves to learn as well how to best reach out to them with this information.
GoodCourse spoke to Rosie Jones, Director of Student and Library Services at Teesside University, about identifying opportunities to take advantage of in achieving goals, and creating opportunities when you can.
I expect there are probably many other library leaders like me currently taking on broader student experience roles. I started as a graduate trainee at Manchester Metropolitan University back in 2001 and then trained as a professional librarian. Throughout my career, I’ve always grabbed opportunities and been really excited by the innovation part of my profession. Students have always been at the heart of everything I thrive on. So I’ve held specialist information literacy roles, and I was one of the first librarians to properly hold a dedicated learning space design position. I coordinated that for the whole of Manchester University.
For me, my profession provides really transferable skills, because we’re good at projects and getting involved in new initiatives. I first started branching out into student services type areas when I began working as the Director of Libraries for the Open University. There was massive change going on there at that point, and people were picking up projects outside of their initial remit. Then I discovered the role at Teesside and realised it was my chance to have impact on the whole of the student experience, and that’s the bit I love. Actually having influence over the whole student journey and the opportunities that arise from being able to do that.
A lot of our students are commuters, and we’d always used the physical campus to drive a sense of belonging. So COVID really changed things. We’ve really had to rebuild that appetite in students, and to think about what belonging and inclusivity mean to us, whether it’s on campus or online. One active thing I’ve done is to change one of my assistant director roles so it now focuses on this directly. This particular post now drives our innovation and new initiatives. It allows us to experiment. We’re trying things, seeing whether they work and whether we want to roll them out across the organisation.
We’re very interested in uniting and celebrating different cultures and we’ve been doing a huge amount of work in that regard. For instance, at the start of the year, we did a Welcome initiative with our students where they contributed phrases that they would use for “welcome” on their home turf. This includes everything from local slang — “Ey up! Put the Kettle On!” — to international phrases in other languages. And we created an exhibition of these phrases in the Student Life building. It gives a visual cue to all of our students that they can see themselves represented. All of our students, local and international, can meet in that space and have something in common to talk about.
In terms of Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI), we have a visible Yes to Respect campaign to encourage everyone to treat each other in a fair and equitable way. We’ve got a Consent Matters course as well as a robust structure for when incidents arise and students need direct support. A lot of our EDI is driven by our Access and Participation plan, as well. 85% of our students are from disadvantaged backgrounds so this is extremely important to us.
My job is not the same as it was in 2001! I suppose first of all, on the technology side of things, I was lucky because my profession was of the mindset that it didn’t really matter what specific tech came next and that it was more about teaching students the skills they needed to make the most of it. My assistant director often uses the phrase “opportunity ready” and I think that’s what my whole service targets: students being able to cope with new technologies, developments, and change. We teach students to be critical, open to the opportunities that new advances bring, and to have transferable skills.
I think it’s difficult. Students engage the least when we make the topics too formal. I think our approach to EDI is about having conversations and providing an access point for our students to be invovled. I don’t think there’s a problem with engagement but I think there’s sometimes a problem with how we pitch engagement. Students are quite willing to contribute, but you’ve got to get the how right and convenient for them because they have huge competing pressures on them all the time.
It’s about not assuming that if they’re not engaging, they don’t want to engage. I’d really challenge people to go back and rethink. In January, due to COVID, a lot of our students were having massive anxiety about their exams. So we ran a series of drop-in sessions with them, encouraging them to come along and have a chat with us, but very few students turned up. And one of my team said it means we got the information wrong, and that they didn’t need it. But I said, “That’s absolutely not the position we should take. We clearly just haven’t provided the right entry point.” So this time round, we’ve changed everything. We’ve got the student union on board. We’re giving away free breakfasts, and changed the branding and promotional materials. You might feel a bit deflated about engagement at times but go back to the drawing board and think differently. Even if we have to give them pizza to get involved!